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Five things to watch in Pitt-Virginia Tech: Next 7 days will do much to define Panthers' season

Jerry DiPaola
| Friday, Nov. 17, 2017, 9:27 p.m.
Pitt's Ben DiNucci looks to throw against Virginia in the third quarter Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Ben DiNucci looks to throw against Virginia in the third quarter Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Pitt running back Darrin Hall dives into the end zone against North Carolina in the third quarter Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017 at Heinz Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt running back Darrin Hall dives into the end zone against North Carolina in the third quarter Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017 at Heinz Field.

Blinded by the past 11 weeks, Pitt fans might not understand the reality of the last two games of the regular season.

Yes, they matter, and not only to opponents Virginia Tech and Miami (especially Miami) as they jockey for attractive postseason landing spots.

Pitt ventures Saturday into Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Va., one of the most intimidating venues in college football, but a place where Pat Narduzzi never has lost as a head coach (OK, he's 1-0).

Let's be clear: The season can veer in three distinctly different directions over the next seven days, but it won't change Pitt's offseason plans.

Narduzzi still must identify a quarterback he can trust and receivers who can make big plays. Meanwhile, he will try to find the right words to persuade NFL-eligible stars Jordan Whitehead and Brian O'Neill to come back for their senior seasons.

For the moment, however, Pitt can either:

• Win one of two games and finish 5-7, its worst record in 10 years, but a nice recovery from a 2-5 start.

• Lose both and fall to 4-8 (Johnny Majors won four in 1996, the last season of his second coming).

• Win them both, dazzle the nation, ruin Miami's national championship hopes and finish the regular season 6-6 for the fifth time in the past seven years.

Here are five more thoughts to ponder while watching the game:

ACC runner-up, really?

Pitt can beat Virginia Tech and move to within a half-game of second-place in the ACC Coastal, if Duke beats Georgia Tech and Miami defeats Virginia.

It's not a great year in the ACC, with only four teams holding winning conference records. For Pitt to finish near the bottom wouldn't be a good look.

Junior linebacker Elijah Zeise thinks it can be avoided.

“Last year, there wasn't a person in this (team meeting) room who didn't think we could go down there and beat Clemson,” he said. “So, that's the kind of mindset we have for these next two games.”

Bowl talk

Players still discuss making a postseason trip for the 10th consecutive season.

“These next two teams are in our way,” Zeise said.

Narduzzi doesn't like to talk about a bowl — one game at a time, remember? — but he graciously answered when the subject arose.

If he loses those 15 valuable (so we've been told) pre-bowl practices, he said, “It bothers you, but we'll amp it up in spring ball. We'll get those 15 days. It might be a few extra hours in those practices.”

He also rationalized that a bowl can set you back in the spring.

“All you're doing is continuing to beat up the guys that have gotten beat up all year and you end up having a tired, beat-up football team when it comes to spring ball,” he said.

Stroman vs. Henderson

Virginia Tech offers another threat to Pitt's coverage teams in Greg Stroman, who has matched Quadree Henderson's in punt returns for touchdowns (two).

Pitt's cover teams need to make amends after their soft tackling efforts on North Carolina's game-opening kickoff return last week.

Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente was asked about punting away from Henderson, but he seems reluctant to try it with freshman Oscar Bradburn.

“I just don't know that we're incredibly comfortable with telling Oscar which way to punt the ball just yet,” he said.

Plus, safety Terrell Edmunds, a special-teams stud, is lost for the season with a shoulder injury.

Balance the offense ...

Backup wide receiver Ra-Ra Araujo-Lopes continues to lead the team in receptions (37), even though he has only one catch in the past two weeks.

Lopes and Jester Weah are the only Pitt wide receivers who have scored, and Lopes' only touchdown occurred Sept. 16 against Oklahoma State.

Max Browne leads Ben DiNucci in touchdown passes, 5-4, even though Browne last played Oct. 7.

The run game is fine, but Pitt needs a balanced offense.

... but keep running

Running back Darrin Hall remains Pitt's best hope on offense, but Virginia Tech has two imposing figures in the middle of their line — tackles Tim Settle (335 pounds) and Ricky Walker (300).

If offensive coordinator Shawn Watson decides not to run directly at them, that's a good plan. But as running backs coach Andre Powell's T-shirt says, “Find A Way.”

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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