For a team nicknamed the Ramblin’ Wreck, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (2-4) sure do live up to the mantra. Just ask the Pitt Panthers (4-1). Since joining the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Yellow Jackets have done exactly that, wrecking the Panthers in their two conference meetings.
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Two seasons ago, quarterback Tom Savage was terrorized by a Tech defense that dominated the Panthers in a 21-10 stomping at Bobby Dodd Stadium.
Last season’s matchup was marred by the worst first quarter in Pitt history. Five fumbles in consecutive drives doomed the Panthers as Tech raced out to a 28 to nothing lead. The Panthers would cut the lead to as close as 14, but the comeback could not be complete with the Yellow Jackets winning 56-28.
Unlike previous meetings, Saturday’s game in Atlanta can be viewed as a role reversal for both teams. The Panthers are looking to continue their pursuit of a possible ACC Coastal title. For Georgia Tech, it’s all about getting back on track after a horrendous stretch.
After beating on hapless opponents Alcorn St and Tulane, the Yellow Jackets have dropped four straight contests. This includes three losses to ACC teams. Last week, a stout Clemson front limited the triple option attack to only 71 yards rushing, a low point under head coach Paul Johnson. In a season which began with College Football Playoff aspirations, the Ramblin Wreck is hoping to salvage their once promising season.
Pitt, on the other hand, is trending up in the ACC. Since arriving from Michigan St, head coach Pat Narduzzi has turned a once abysmal defense into not only one of the best in the ACC, but one of the top units in the nation. Even the most optimistic fan could not have imagined a turnaround like this.
Through five games, the Panthers sit seventh in the nation in yards given up per game, yielding 264.6 yards. Though that is only good for third in the ACC behind NC State and Duke, Pitt does rank ahead of traditional defensive powers Ohio St, LSU and in-state rival Penn State.
The cornerstone for this revamped Panthers’ unit has been their tremendous rush defense. Pitt currently sits sixth in the country against the run. Two weeks ago in Blacksburg, the Panthers’ defense held the Virginia Tech Hokies to only nine rushing yards on 33 attempts in their 17-13 rain soaked win.
However, last Saturday’s win versus Virginia showed there are wrinkles that need ironed out for the defense. The Panthers gave up a season high 131 yards rushing in the victory over the Cavalier. Seventy-one of those yards did come by way of one big run by Virginia running back Albert Reid.
Saturday’s game will prove to be the toughest test to date for the run stuffing Panthers. Even with Georgia Tech reeling after four straight losses, they still possess one of the top rushing attacks in college football at 271.7 yards per game. In two previous match-ups against Pitt, the Yellow Jackets have gained 741 yards on the ground, including a whopping 465 yards last year at Heinz Field.
Tech quarterback Justin Thomas accounted for 92 of those yards in last season’s game, but has been held in check so far this season. The dual-threat quarterback is only averaging 2.7 yards per rush this year after averaging 5.7 yards a clip in 2014. Not only are Thomas’ rushing stats down from 2014, his completion percentage and passer rating have dwindled from last year.
Though every game in college football is viewed as a must win, a victory versus the Yellow Jackets would go a long way for the Panthers on many different levels. A win would mark the first 3-0 conference start since 2010 when Pitt was a member of the Big East. The win would also establish the Panthers as a contender for the ACC Coastal title.
Pitt currently sits tied with Duke for the lead in their division. But with the Dukes idle this week, a win would give the Panthers sole possession of first place. And for a Panthers team that is running on all cylinders, it is just the boost they need.