“I don’t know that anybody understands how hard all of this is,” Virginia Tech Coach Justin Fuente said of playing during the pandemic. “I’m not talking the last three weeks. I’m just talking about all of this since July to back in the spring. The guys are incredibly resilient. They’d like to play better and get better results.”
The decisive stretch Saturday at Heinz Field unfolded after the Panthers (5-4, 4-4) stuffed Virginia Tech quarterback Hendon Hooker at the goal line on fourth down a little more than five minutes into the third quarter. The stand allowed Pittsburgh to preserve its 26-14 lead and take over at its 1-yard line. Two plays later, a blown assignment compounded by missed tackles yielded Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett’s 64-yard touchdown pass to DJ Turner (DeMatha) with 8:43 to play.
Virginia Tech kicker Brian Johnson, one of the most reliable in the ACC, missed a 38-yard field goal attempt on the Hokies’ next possession, and the Panthers all but sealed their win when Pickett capped a 79-yard drive with a one-yard touchdown run for a 40-14 lead with 20 seconds left in the quarter.
The Hokies surrendered 556 yards of offense. Pickett passed for 404 yards while completing 35 of 52 attempts, and Turner added 184 yards on 15 receptions.
“You don’t want to be in this situation,” Hokies defensive tackle Jarrod Hewitt said of the team’s recent slide. “But I’m very confident we’ll come together and not further apart.”
Hooker accounted for 313 of the Hokies’ 434 yards, passing for 260 yards and two touchdowns. Khalil Herbert carried nine times for 72 yards as Virginia Tech amassed just 156 rushing yards, well below its ACC-leading average of 262.8 entering the game.
The Hokies trailed 23-14 at halftime after yielding two touchdowns in the final six minutes. The second of those came on Pickett’s 11-yard throw to wide receiver Jaylon Barden. Pickett showed off his arm strength on the play, running to his left while under pressure and completing a strike toward the middle of the end zone.
After falling behind 9-0, Virginia Tech scored its first points on Hooker’s 55-yard pass to wide receiver Tré Turner, trimming the Hokies’ deficit to 9-7 with 8:13 left in the first half. Turner got behind the secondary thanks to a run fake by Hooker, who collected the snap and began moving to his right before pulling up and delivering a pinpoint throw as Pittsburgh’s defense flowed toward him.
Turner added his second touchdown on a seven-yard pass from Hooker, leaping to secure the ball and drawing the Hokies within 16-14 with 3:36 to go in the quarter. The junior hurt his hand on the catch and missed the rest of the game.
“We still want to win games,” Turner said. “Still a hungry team in my eyes, still a lot of fight regardless.”
As has been routine, Virginia Tech played with a compromised roster. Cornerbacks Jermaine Waller and Dorian Strong, defensive end Emmanuel Belmar and guard Doug Nester were inactive, leaving the Hokies without their most starters in weeks. Also significant was the absence of ailing junior left tackle Christian Darrisaw (Riverdale Baptist). The highly regarded prospect did not practice this week; sophomore Luke Tenuta started in his place.
“I know we’re down a lot of guys and all that kind of stuff,” Fuente said, “but that doesn’t mean we can’t get first downs on fourth and one or score on fourth and goal from the 1 or play better.”
The Panthers had 16 players unavailable because of positive coronavirus tests or contact tracing, the athletic department announced. Among the more notable absences were three starting offensive linemen.