PITTSBURGH — Virginia Tech’s latest trip to Heinz Field echoed its 2018 visit in all the wrong ways.
The Hokies beleaguered defense fell apart giving up a season-high 556 yards against Pittsburgh — this time the collapse came after halftime — while the offense continued to regress as it went 1 of 3 in the red zone and suffered numerous failures on short-yardage situations.
Pittsburgh won 40-14 after outscoring Tech 24-0 in the second half and handed the Hokies their third straight loss.
The Panthers turned the game into a rout even with 16 players sidelined (including seven starters) on Saturday and a coronavirus-related layoff that only allowed them to get one practice in the days leading up to the game.
“We’ve had two weeks in a row that we played pretty well and just gut-wrenching losses and this week, we got our butts kicked,” Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente said.
Pitt’s rushing attack did much of the damage two years ago, but this time quarterback Kenny Pickett and receiver DJ Turner were the stars. Pickett had 404 passing yards and three touchdowns (two passing) while Turner caught 15 passes for 184 yards with a score. Turner’s 15 catches set a single-game record against Tech’s defense.
“I mean we were trying to get him off his spot,” Fuente said of Pickett. “I thought when we did pressure him, when we did come free, he ran around us and we couldn’t get in very many negative plays, I think that hurt us. The few times we were free, we couldn’t get him on the ground. And when they did pick it up, he made us pay.”
The Panthers scored on all four of their second-half possessions with a four-play, 99-yard drive early in the third quarter to go up 33-14, basically putting the game out of reach. Turner burned the defense for a 64-yard touchdown with the drive only taking 72 seconds off the clock.
On offense, the defining moment of the game came early in the third quarter after Tech's offense went 70 yards in five plays and had a a fresh set of downs at Pitt’s 4-yard line.
Running back Jalen Holston got to the 1-yard line on first down, but the offense couldn’t get the ball across the goal line and turned the ball over on downs when Hendon Hooker came up short on a fourth-down run off the right side.
“We got to get that in,” Virginia Tech running back Khalil Herbert said. “There’s no ifs, ands or butts about it … that’s something we got to have.”
Tech’s offensive output in the early going was nonexistent.
The Hokies had 27 yards in the first quarter (only 6 rushing yards on eight carries), fumbled once and were 0 of 3 on third downs. They couldn’t convert multiple short-yardage situations including a third-and-inches at their own 25-yard line.
Tech’s lone first down in the quarter came on a tipped pass that floated straight up into the air and required Tre Turner to make a diving catch coming back to the ball.
The offense showed signs of life early in the second quarter when Hooker hit James Mitchell for a 38-yard gain down the middle, but the drive stalled after backup quarterback Quincy Patterson came into the game.
It was the first extended action for Patterson since the opener against N.C. State. Tech had the ball first-and-10 at Pitt’s 23-yard line and went backward from there thanks to an unnecessary roughness call on Brock Hoffman. They punted facing a fourth-and-25 from the 38-yard line.
Hooker came right back into the game on Tech’s next drive and the offense finally clicked. He threw a 55-yard touchdown to Turner, who beat a pair of Pittsburgh defenders over the top. He also had Tayvion Robinson wide-open on the other side of the field.
They connected again for a score later in the quarter with Hooker hitting Turner on an 8-yard slant. Pitt safety Erick Hallett was draped over Turner’s back when he went up to make the leaping grab. Turner’s touchdown cut Pitt’s lead to 16-14 with 3:36 to go in the half, but he was injured on the play and didn't play in the second half.
Robinson also made two nice catches on the drive to set up the score. He made a 39-yard catch on a play where Hooker was nearly brought down in the backfield. Robinson also converted a third-and-5 inside Pitt’s 30-yard line by turning a screen into a 19-yard gain amidst multiple defenders.
Pitt’s offensive attack didn’t have any issues getting in a rhythm.
Pickett was 26 of 40 for 259 yards with a touchdown and interception going into halftime. The 40 pass attempts were the most against Tech in any half since at least 1987.
The Panthers had some issues in the red zone — they had to settle for field goals on their first two trips inside the 25-yard line — but Pickett just kept carving up Tech’s secondary. He completed passes to six different receivers and DJ Turner led the way with 11 catches for 87 yards.
"It's a lot of quick game, they gave us some max pro [protection], but lot of time the ball was out in a couple seconds, but got to credit Pitt for that, they had a great game plan and obviously they executed," Tech defensive tackle Jarrod Hewitt said.