Pitt defense seeks repeat of 2012 Virginia Tech game

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A year ago, Pitt used two first-quarter interceptions to spur an upset of then-No. 13 Virginia Tech.

The early picks by safeties Jarred Holley and Jason Hendricks whipped the upset-hungry Heinz Field crowd into a frenzy, and the Panthers fed off that momentum.

Now, the Panthers are hoping that some early turnovers Saturday might have a slightly different effect on the typically boisterous fans at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Va.

"Take the crowd out of it," Hendricks said. "We've got to do the opposite. When it happens, we'll get very excited, we'll feed off each other."

Forcing interceptions has been a hit-and-mostly-miss proposition for the Panthers through four games this season. They had four in a 58-55 win against Duke -- including one returned for a touchdown by linebacker Anthony Gonzalez -- but those were mostly written off as footnotes in an otherwise disastrous performance by coordinator Matt House's unit.

They didn't register any interceptions two weeks ago against Virginia, but still held Cavaliers quarterback David Watford to 15-of-37 passing. The defense also was able to steal momentum in other ways.

"As bad as we played in that Duke game, we were able to steal possessions and score on defense," House said. "That's huge. Really, even in the Virginia game, if you get a fourth-down stop, that's as good as a turnover. To have that many fourth-down stops is huge."

Hendricks also said he felt that the defense has gained more confidence over the past few weeks, and that safety Ray Vinopal, the only first-year starter, played much better against Virginia.

"We're more confident, and I think we're playing better together," Hendricks said.

"There's always room to improve, but, when the opportunities come, we make the best of it. We don't try to play out of our responsibilities, we try to play in the defense and make plays within the defense."

In that upset against the Hokies a year ago, Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas gave the Panthers plenty of chances to make plays. Turnover issues have dogged Thomas throughout his career, and he had six in the Hokies' first four games this season.

In the past two weeks, though, Virginia Tech beat Georgia Tech and North Carolina, and he did not throw any interceptions.

"He was hot as heck the last two games," House said. "They're doing a great job of putting stress on the defense by multiple formations. I think he's definitely improved over last year. He's a really good quarterback."

One of the key factors in causing the interceptions a year ago, according to Hendricks was the pressure Pitt's front seven put on Thomas.

"That's how I got two of my interceptions last year, because the defensive line had a lot of pressure on him, made him force some throws that he wasn't sure of," Hendricks said. "Thanks to them, I had two interceptions."

Fortunately for the Panthers, that's another area where they seemed to have made some progress against Virginia in their most recent game. After averaging just 1.7 sacks per game in their first three contests, the defensive line accounted for three against the Cavaliers.

Aaron Donald leads the way with six sacks this season.

House admitted that getting some big plays early and giving Pitt's offense as many chances as possible could be crucial in pulling off another upset.

Given the success they had a year ago, the Panthers have plenty of reasons to be confident. They also know that -- as Pitt did last year -- Virginia Tech could ride a couple of early plays and a fevered crowd to an easy win.

"The fact that we know we beat them before, that's a lot of confidence, but we know it's going to be tough," Hendricks said. "They're at home and they're going to feed off of that."


Game: Pitt (3-1, 2-1 ACC) vs. Virginia Tech (5-1, 2-0).

When: noon Saturday.

Where: Lane Stadium, Blacksburg, Va.



Sam Werner: swerner@post-gazette.com and Twitter???@SWernerPG. First Published October 9, 2013 9:03 PM


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