Pitt falls to Virginia Tech, 19-9

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BLACKSBURG, Va. -- Every time Pitt quarterback Tom Savage dropped back to throw Saturday, it seemed like only a matter of seconds before he was engulfed by maroon jerseys.

From beginning to end, No. 24 Virginia Tech's relentless pass rush wreaked havoc on Pitt's offense. The Hokies sacked Savage eight times en route to a 19-9 victory at Lane Stadium.

For the second game in a row, pass protection and running the ball proved challenging for the Panthers. Savage was sacked seven times in Pitt's 14-3 win against Virginia two weeks ago, and the Panthers gained just 8 total yards on the ground in that one.

Against the Hokies Saturday, Pitt rushed for 23 yards -- an improvement, but hardly enough to make a difference. With little to no running game, Pitt faced constant third-and-longs and finished 4 of 14 on third-down conversions.

"We were able to run at some point, but not consistently," coach Paul Chryst said. "I think it's converting on third down so that's where you get in a rhythm. When you don't convert on third down, you're not in a rhythm.

"We've got to certainly protect better, but I think it starts with running so we don't become one-dimensional."

Freshman James Conner, Pitt's leading rusher entering the game, suffered an early shoulder injury and only had two carries. Even factoring out the sacks, Pitt's running backs combined for 49 yards on 14 carries.

Without the threat of a running game, the Hokies were able to pin their ears back and rush Savage relentlessly.

Virginia Tech defensive end Dadi Nicolas sacked Savage three times, getting constant pressure off the edge.

"I think they've got a heck of a defense," Chryst said. "Protection was an issue. Clearly something, two [games] in a row now, we've got to clean that up."

While the Pitt offense struggled to establish any sort of foothold, the defense held the Hokies mostly in check. Virginia Tech scored a touchdown on its first possession, but only on a near-perfect pass from quarterback Logan Thomas to tight end Kalvin Cline to turn a third-and-9 into a 27-yard touchdown.

Thomas finished 19 of 34 for 239 yards and one touchdown. He was also the Hokies' leading rusher with 27 yards.

Most importantly, Thomas didn't throw any interceptions. His three turnovers last year were a major spark early in Pitt's 35-17 upset win at Heinz Field.

"His throwing got better, his reads, everything," Pitt linebacker Todd Thomas said.

Thomas led the way with 12 tackles, including 11/2 for a loss. Defensive tackle Aaron Donald had six tackles and two sacks, moving him into a tie for fourth place on Pitt's all-time sack list.

After the opening touchdown, Pitt's defense held the Hokies to four Cody Journell field goals.

Pitt's offense, meanwhile, got its only two highlights on long passes from Savage to receiver Devin Street. At the end of the first half, the two connected for a 48-yard pass down the right sideline that moved the ball to the Virginia Tech 20.

But Savage was sacked on the next two plays and Pitt had to settle for a field goal to head into halftime trailing, 10-3.

Savage finished 13 of 28 for 187 yards. Street had five catches for 104 of those yards.

"Obviously it's frustrating," Savage said. "You want to put more points on the board. We've just got to stay positive with it and just build on what we have, really. What did we put up, nine points? The defense did a great job, we've just got to execute more on offense."

Savage and Street connected again late in the fourth on a 33-yard reception that sent Street off with a shoulder injury. On the next play, Savage took a designed quarterback draw 9 yards for the second rushing touchdown of his career.

After the game, Savage said he felt "great" despite the pounding he took. He also defended the play of his offensive line, saying many of the sacks were a result of him holding the ball too long.

"I have the best line in the country," he said. "I'm confident with those guys out there and it's just my job to get rid of the ball."

Chryst, too, said he didn't think the pass protection issues were anything that needed major overhaul in the coming weeks.

"I think there can be some minor adjustments," he said. "I think, really, we've got to look at it not just with the O-line, but [also] the routes we're running. Everyone can own that a little bit."

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Sam Werner: swerner@post-gazette.com and Twitter @SWernerPG. Chat about Pitt football with Sam on noon Fridays at www.post-gazette.com/chat First Published October 12, 2013 11:11 AM


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