ACC: Virginia Tech Hokies

Two stats paint a bleak picture as Miami prepares to hit the road to play Virginia Tech on Thursday night.

The Canes are winless away from home this season; and they have not won in Blacksburg since 2005. In order to change that narrative and get back into the Coastal Division race, the objective seems pretty simple. Play better on the road.

[+] EnlargeBrad Kaaya
Brett Davis/USA TODAY SportsTaking care of the ball will be key for Brad Kaaya and Miami on Thursday night at Virginia Tech.
How do the Canes do that? Miami lost each of its games at Louisville, Nebraska and Georgia Tech for different reasons. Against Louisville, the Canes limited their playbook and ran a conservative offense, contributing to stalled drives; in Lincoln, Miami could not stop the run; in Atlanta, Miami ran less than 50 plays.

However, one common thread emerged in each -- close games turned into double-digit losses thanks to untimely turnovers that turned momentum the other way. Of the eight turnovers Miami has committed on the road, seven came in its opponents’ territory.

Among the costliest:

  • With the game tied at 7 against Louisville in the second quarter, Miami forced Will Gardner to fumble deep inside his own territory. The Canes faced a first-and-goal at the 7, the perfect opportunity to quiet the hostile road crowd. But Stacy Coley fumbled on the first play. Miami never got closer to the end zone.
  • Down 24-21 against Nebraska late in the third quarter, Duke Johnson fumbled inside Nebraska territory. The Cornhuskers picked up the ball and returned it 57 yards for a score.
  • With the game tied at 14 against Georgia Tech midway through the second quarter, Brad Kaaya threw an interception from the Jackets 27. Miami scored a field goal the rest of the game.

Turnovers always hurt, but giving the ball away in such critical situations is painful, especially with a freshman behind center. Kaaya has thrown nine interceptions, third worst among ACC quarterbacks who have started every game this season. He has not thrown an interception in two games this year -- his last two home games against Duke and Cincinnati.

The good news for Miami, though, is that Kaaya already has played in front of two electric prime-time crowds at Louisville and Nebraska. Virginia Tech is known for its wild Thursday night atmospheres, but there may not be a full crowd at Lane Stadium. Since he already has been road tested, Kaaya should not show many jitters.

Even better news rests with the Coastal Division, where every team has at least one loss. At 1-2 in ACC play, Miami is only one game behind Duke, Virginia and Pitt -- all 2-1. Miami already has a head-to-head win over the Blue Devils, which could help if there is a tiebreaker down the road.

“Maybe when we got back from Atlanta, we had some guys that maybe didn’t understand how early it was in the race,” coach Al Golden told reporters in Miami on Monday. “Based on what’s transpired since then, maybe they’re believing now. Maybe they have a little more faith that this thing is far from over. We’ve got to take care of our business and not worry about anything else. It’s a one-game season right now and when we get back from Blacksburg, it’ll be another one game season. That’s all that matters.”

Winning on the road matters, too. Miami will have a tough time winning the division if it keeps falling flat away from home.

ACC morning links

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
8:00
AM ET
It appears as if Virginia Tech will lose its second defensive starter to a medical redshirt this season.

Starting defensive tackle Luther Maddy said Monday night on Twitter that he needs a second surgery on his knee and will sit out the rest of the season.
Maddy initially tore the meniscus in his right knee against East Carolina in Week 3, but played 48 snaps with the injury against Georgia Tech. He underwent surgery last month, and the timetable for his return was listed as two-to-four weeks. Though he was listed as probable to play against Pitt, Maddy did not and was not scheduled to play against Miami on Thursday night.

His loss is a big one for the Hokies, who have had to make do without him for the last three games. Nigel Williams replaced him in the lineup, but it's tough to make up for Maddy's experience and skill-set. The four-year starter was a preseason All-ACC team selection after he had 6.5 sacks and 16 quarterback hurries a season ago. In four games this season, Maddy had seven hurries.

Virginia Tech also plans on redshirting Brandon Facyson, who started the season at cornerback opposite Kendall Fuller. Facyson has been slow to heal from a stress fracture to his shin and has not played since Week 3.

In one other Virginia Tech injury note, running back Marshawn Williams is expected to play against the Hurricanes after missing last week with a sprained ankle.

Over at Georgia Tech, the Jackets got some tough injury news of their own when coach Paul Johnson said that starting B-back Zach Laskey probably won't play at Pitt on Saturday. Laskey hurt his shoulder late against North Carolina last week and was in a sling Monday. Laskey has been terrific this season, with a team-high 120 carries for 595 yards and five touchdowns.

He gained 70 or more yards in each game this season.

Now let's see what else is making headlines in the ACC:

By the numbers: Week 8 recap

October, 20, 2014
Oct 20
2:00
PM ET
Digging into some numbers from Week 8 in the ACC ...

Winston is the comeback kid

Amid all the off-field chaos, it's easy to forget how good Jameis Winston is on the field, and he's been particularly impressive when his team needs him most. Winston is awfully good at rallying his team. In the second-half comeback against Notre Dame on Saturday, Winston was a sterling 15-of-16 for 181 yards, leading two touchdown drives.

This is nothing new. While Winston hasn't been tested often, his numbers when playing from behind are off the charts. Since the start of last season, Winston has completed 81-of-109 passes (74 percent) for 1,104 yards (13.6 yards-per-attempt) with 12 touchdowns and one interception when FSU is trailing. That's absurd.

Winston also excelled against the blitz Saturday. In 2013, he completed 69 percent of his throws, averaged 11.8 yards-per-attempt and tossed 21 TDs to just three picks vs. the blitz, but to start this season, his YPA dropped to 8.1 and he had just three TDs on 54 attempts. Against the Irish, however, Winston was 9-of-11 for 113 yards with two TDs and no picks when facing the blitz.

Noles' ground game struggling

On Saturday, FSU mustered just 50 yards on 26 rushing attempts -- a dismal 1.92 YPC. Last season, FSU averaged 5.6 yards per rush, but it has yet to hit that mark in any game against an FBS foe this season.

It's not all on the tailbacks, however. The biggest difference appears to be the O-line.

.

FSU's runners are averaging roughly the exact same number of yards after first contact as they did in the previous two seasons, but they're getting more than two yards-per-carry less before contact than they did in 2012.

Boyd and nothing else

Pitt toppled Virginia Tech on Thursday despite QB Chad Voytik completing just 10 passes (on 17 attempts). What's perhaps even more noteworthy about Pitt's passing game, however, is that the only wide receiver to catch a pass was Tyler Boyd, who had six receptions on nine targets.

That's hardly a surprise. For the season, Boyd has 34 catches against FBS teams. The rest of Pitt's receiving corps has 22.

Overall, Boyd has accounted for 41.4 percent of Pitt's targets and 49.7 percent of its receiving yards vs. FBS foes -- both the highest rates in the nation.

Clemson stuffs the run

Remember in the opener when Todd Gurley ran all over Clemson's defense? Georgia racked up 328 rushing yards and five TDs on 41 carries. It was ugly.

Since then, however, the Tigers have surrendered just 395 more yards in six games. Clemson is allowing just 2.0 yards-per-carry since the opener, the best rate in the nation. Against Boston College on Saturday, it held the Eagles to nearly 200 yards below their season rushing average, and the Tigers racked up 14 tackles for loss. It was the fourth time in the last six games Clemson has had double-digit TFLs, and since that opening game against UGA, no defense in the country has created a higher percentage of negative rushing plays than Clemson's (36.5 percent).

Marquise the magician

For the second straight week, North Carolina QB Marquise Williams was terrific. Williams enjoyed his third 300-yard game of the season (Winston is the only other ACC QB with as many), chucking four TD passes and adding a fifth score -- along with 70 rushing yards -- on the ground in a win against Georgia Tech.

It's the second straight game Williams had 300 passing yards, 70 rushing yards and at least three total touchdowns. In the past decade, the only other Power 5 conference QB to do that in back-to-back games was Heisman winner Robert Griffin III.

Heels, Jackets struggle on D

Entering Saturday's game, the only Power 5 conference team allowing more yards-per-play than Georgia Tech (6.3) and North Carolina (6.2) was South Carolina (6.35), so it was no surprise that the two defenses coughed up 1,190 yards and 91 points when they faced off.

For Georgia Tech, it's the continuation of a downward trend. In Ted Roof's first eight games against FBS teams as Tech's defensive coordinator, the Yellow Jackets allowed 5.5 yards-per-play and held five opponents below 101 yards rushing. In his last nine, opponents have rushed for an average of 173 yards per game and are averaging 6.5 yards-per-play overall, good for 115th in the nation in that span.

But things are even worse for the Tar Heels. In the last decade, just five Power 5 conference teams have allowed more yards in their first seven games than UNC (3,659) and only four have allowed more touchdowns (40).

Quick hitters
  • Entering the game, Virginia QBs were completing 63 percent of their throws to wide receivers this season, but against Duke, the Hoos completed just 45 percent. Matt Johns targeted wideouts on 70.2 percent of his throws in the game — the second-highest percentage of throws to WRs for Virginia quarterbacks this season. Cavaliers wideouts haven't caught a touchdown pass in their past three games after hauling in six in the first four.
  • Johns did hit running back Khalek Shepherd for a passing touchdown. It was just the third one Duke has allowed this season. Only San Jose State and Ole Miss have allowed a lower rate of touchdown throws in the nation.
  • Ryan Switzer in 13 games last season: 32 catches, 341 yards, three TDs. Switzer in seven games this season: 34 catches, 429 yards, three TDs.
  • The two highest completion percentages for Power 5 wideouts (min. 30 targets) reside in the ACC, and both are true freshmen: Clemson's Artavis Scott (38 catches on 46 targets) and NC State's Bo Hines (28 catches on 35 targets).
  • UNC's defense has struggled, but it has also been opportunistic. The Heels have 80 points off turnovers this year, the third-best total in the country. On the flip side, the Heels have allowed 77 points off turnovers, the second-worst total in the country.

ACC morning links: A loss for Clemson

October, 20, 2014
Oct 20
8:00
AM ET
The last thing Clemson needed was more bad news on offense, but that's exactly what was in store Sunday.

The Tigers' leading rusher, freshman Adam Choice, is done for the season with a knee injury, as the Charleston Post & Courier writes.

Choice suffered a torn ACL in Saturday's 17-13 win against Boston College, adding more grim news to a running game that has struggled to find any footing this season. Through seven games, Choice was Clemson's leading rusher with 218 yards and also averaged a team-best 4.4 yards per carry.

Choice actually would have redshirted this season, but he was thrust into the tailback mix when Zac Brooks went down with a season-ending injury in fall camp. Choice's injury leaves the trio of Wayne Gallman, C.J. Davidson and D.J. Howard to pick up the slack in the Tigers' backfield.

In fairness, the bulk of Choice's production this year came against South Carolina State. Against FBS foes, he's carried 38 times for 144 yards -- an average of 3.8 per carry -- good for 38th among ACC tailbacks.

Still, his replacements don't offer much alternative. Howard, Davidson and Gallman have averaged a woeful 3.6 yards-per-carry against FBS foes and just seven of their 113 rushes (6 percent) went for 10 yards or more. Add the fact the Tigers will be without dual-threat QB Deshaun Watson for at least another few weeks, and the offensive struggles of the past two games don't seem like they'll diminish any time soon.

A few more links:

Jameis Winston is a near lock to enter the NFL draft, according to CBS Sports. Well, yeah. Of course. The whole “will he or won't he” discussion has been silly for a while, and when I spoke with Winston's father, Antonor, in August, he said the talk about returning was entirely dependent on Jameis' draft status. And that was before all the new off-field chaos.

Matthew Thomas, who had been suspended for the first half of the season, added some much-needed athleticism to Florida State's defense, writes the Orlando Sentinel.

Georgia Tech's defense was a complete disaster against North Carolina, writes the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Virginia Tech is shaking up its offensive line after another ugly offensive performance against Pitt, writes the Roanoke Times.

More from the Roanoke Times: Matt Johns should've run more often against Duke, according to Virginia coach Mike London.

Marquise Williams has been tremendous over the past two games, including leading a comeback win for North Carolina on Saturday, writes the Charlotte Observer.

After A.J. Long led Syracuse to a much-needed win over Wake Forest, is Terrel Hunt still the starting QB when he's healthy? It's an interesting question, writes Syracuse.com.

Duke Johnson has been a crucial mentor in the development of fellow Miami tailback Joseph Yearby, writes the Sun-Sentinel.

ACC bowl projections: Week 8

October, 19, 2014
Oct 19
8:00
PM ET
The win over Notre Dame certainly wasn’t the final piece to Florida State’s playoff puzzle, but it was clearly the biggest hurdle the Seminoles had remaining on the schedule. That has secured FSU’s spot in our postseason projections, but for now, we’re still predicting the Irish will get a bowl game shot at another ACC power.

College Football Playoff: Florida State
Capital One Orange Bowl: Clemson versus Notre Dame*
Russell Athletic Bowl: Duke
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl: Louisville
Belk Bowl: Virginia
Hyundai Sun Bowl: Miami
New Era Pinstripe Bowl: Boston College
Military Bowl presented By Northrop Grumman: Georgia Tech
Duck Commander Independence Bowl: Virginia Tech
Quick Lane Bowl: Pittsburgh
BITCOIN St. Petersburg Bowl: NC State

* Note: If Notre Dame is not invited to the College Football Playoff or a New Year’s Six bowl game, it will assume one of the ACC’s bowl spots.

ACC Power Rankings: Week 8

October, 19, 2014
Oct 19
2:00
PM ET

ACC mailbag

October, 17, 2014
Oct 17
4:00
PM ET
Since the ACC Black Cat has nearly jinxed all of you, I am doing my best to reverse the fortunes of the ACC by (temporarily) seizing control of the mailbag.

Anonymous Eagle from California writes: Boston College total rushing yards allowed: 599. Clemson total rushing yards allowed: 603. Seems pretty even to me. And with Clemson’s main QB out with an injury, Clemson might have to depend more on the run. That Louisville game was messy. BC has issues -- they dominated USC then completely failed to contain Colorado State -- but I think this game will be a lot closer than everyone thinks.

Shanker: OK, so you’re really not asking a question Anonymous Eagle, but your analysis that 599 and 603 are “pretty even” is an accurate assessment. I agree the game will be close, but I’m not sure anyone sees this as a blowout with the Tigers reeling from the loss of star freshman Deshaun Watson. This is obviously an entirely different team with Cole Stoudt at quarterback, and I’m not sure anyone would be shocked if Boston College, a five-point home underdog, pulled off the upset. The Clemson rushing attack has been ineffective much of the season, and now the Eagles will be able to load the box, although they still need to do so at their own peril as the Tigers are loaded at receiver. However, Boston College is one dimensional on offense, too, which means Clemson can also focus on just stopping Tyler Murphy as a runner and daring him to throw. You can talk about rushing numbers all you want, but this game probably comes down to which quarterback can make enough plays through the air. And enough plays might mean just one or two.




Jeff Miller from Perry, Georgia, writes: What are Georgia Tech’s chances of winning the Coastal?

Shanker: I’d say very good, it is probably in the second-best position to win the division. The loss to Duke is a real buzz kill, though. With wins against Virginia Tech and Miami the previous two weeks, the Yellow Jackets were putting some distance between them and some of the other Coastal contenders. Now Duke owns the head-to-head tiebreaker, and the Blue Devils' schedule is soft. I’ll spell it: s-o-f-capital T ... sofT. If they clear these next two games against Virginia at home and at Pittsburgh, it’s hard to find another loss on their schedule. Pitt’s schedule sets up nicely, too, but the Panthers are not convincing anyone they are legitimate contenders yet. Miami has to play at Virginia Tech on a Thursday, at Virginia and against No. 2 Florida State. Though Virginia might be the best Coastal team, it’s an uphill battle for the Cavs to clinch a berth in the ACC title game with road games against Duke, Georgia Tech, Florida State and Virginia Tech, plus a home game against Miami to end the season.




Tyler from Athens, Georgia, writes: Hey, Andrea, I was wondering if this could be the year, even with the struggles on offense, that the Hokies get back to 10 wins?

Shanker: I’m not Andrea, which is bad news for the Hokies. Stick with me here. Virginia Tech is 4-3 after Thursday’s loss and needs to win out and either play in and win the conference championship, or their bowl game. With a decently tough second half of the schedule (by ACC standards) and a conference title game almost certainly against FSU, the odds are the Hokies don’t get 10 wins. Alas, if Andrea was answering this question, she certainly would say Virginia Tech won't get 10 wins, thus Black Cat-ting that prediction and causing Virginia Tech to win out.

But seriously, there was an outside chance if Virginia Tech beat Pittsburgh, but now the best they can finish the regular season with is nine wins. I think best-case scenario is they close out the regular season at 4-1, which still puts them at 8-4 going into a bowl game as the odds of making it to Charlotte are slimming by the week.




Wayne from Tallahassee, Florida, writes: Andrea, I think your black cat is worse than HD's Kiss of Death. Please no black cat for my Noles this weekend..........PLEASE!!!!!

Shanker: The Black Cat nickname actually originated in the press box of the Clemson-Florida State game, and it took an all-time Clemsoning effort for the Seminoles to stave off the curse that night. So far the Seminoles have been impervious to the Black Cat spell, but Notre Dame could be the toughest opponent they face all season. If Florida State loses, though, it won’t be because of Andrea, although feel free to blame her.

It’s a pseudo cop out to say this game comes down to turnovers, because a lot of games do, but it is especially key Saturday given the recent history of the teams. Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson is making critical mistakes that are either costing his team points or directly putting points on the board for the opponent. Though the Seminoles’ defense has been susceptible to big plays and a lot of yards, they squeezed Syracuse in the red zone last week. Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston has had a few costly turnovers this season, too, and Florida State’s defense is not good enough this season to continuously bail out an offense that puts it in a bad situation. The Seminoles have been great at doing that so far this season -- colleague David Hale with a stat that has their defense allowing just three touchdowns on drives beginning in their zone -- but it’s not the kind of situational football FSU coach Jimbo Fisher wants to continue playing.

ACC viewer's guide: Week 8

October, 17, 2014
Oct 17
10:00
AM ET
Pittsburgh snapped a three-game skid Thursday by beating Virginia Tech. Here's the rest of the ACC action for Week 8.

Noon

Syracuse at Wake Forest, ESPN, #CUSEvsWAKE: AJ Long gets the start for Syracuse after Terrel Hunt and Austin Wilson both went down. The true freshman saw extended action last week against defending national champion Florida State, and he now faces a stingy Wake Forest defense that is coming off a bye. The Demon Deacons also start a true freshman under center, though John Wolford has been the guy for Wake since Day 1. Expect defense to rule the day in this contest.

12:30 p.m.

Virginia at Duke, ESPN3, #UVAvsDUKE: It is the current Coastal Division leaders against the reigning division champions. What gives? The Cavaliers are coming off a bye after looking impressive in wins over Pitt and, earlier this season, Louisville. Can the Hoos' defense deliver once again? The Blue Devils did hand Georgia Tech its first loss of the season last week, but their offense needs to play within themselves.

3:30 p.m.

[+] EnlargeWill Gardner
Jamie Rhodes/USA TODAY SportsWill Gardner is expected to get the nod at quarterback for Louisville, which hosts NC State on Saturday.
NC State at Louisville, ESPN3, #NCSUvsLOU: It's 11 straight ACC losses for the Wolfpack, who are still seeking that first league win under Dave Doeren. A team that looked so good so early this season has struggled immensely on the offensive side of the ball in the past two weeks against Clemson and Boston College. The Cardinals, meanwhile, are looking to erase the sour taste from their mouths after last week's heartbreaker against the Tigers. They will turn back to Will Gardner under center to try to get them back on track. Receiver DeVante Parker, who has yet to play this season, is questionable.

No. 24 Clemson at Boston College, ESPNU, #CLEMvsBC: Alumni Stadium holds a special place in Dabo Swinney's heart, as it was the site of his first career win as Clemson's head coach. The Eagles nearly shocked the Tigers last year back in Death Valley, and they did manage to knock off USC earlier this season, so they cannot be taken lightly. BC's run game has been simply astounding at times, with the Eagles outrushing their opposition 1,513-134 in their four wins. Clemson turns back to Cole Stoudt this week at quarterback after Deshaun Watson suffered a broken finger last week.

7 p.m.

Georgia Tech at North Carolina, ESPNU, #GTvsUNC: The Yellow Jackets lost their first game of the season last week, a delay-filled affair against Duke. But that option attack might still be tough to defend for a UNC defense that cannot seem to get out of its own way. Marquise Williams played a terrific game last week at Notre Dame, giving the Tar Heels a tremendous chance to win. But surrendering 50 points for the third time this season did the Heels no good, and, unless that changes, questions will remain about this team.

8 p.m.

No. 5 Notre Dame at No. 2 Florida State, ABC, #NDvsFSU: Everett Golson is 16-1 as a starter. Jameis Winston is 19-0. "College GameDay" is on hand for this game with huge College Football Playoff implications. Brian Kelly and Jimbo Fisher are both in their fifth season with the Fighting Irish and Seminoles, respectively, and [at least] one might have the chance to be in the national title mix for the second time in three seasons. Notre Dame lost in the title game in 2012; FSU won it all in 2013. Chaos has subsided with the Irish, who finally know the fate of the five players who were suspended back in August as part of an internal academic probe. FSU, meanwhile, has dealt with the circus that is Winston seemingly all season long, with the heat amped up this week amid news of a potential disciplinary hearing and an autograph controversy.

ACC morning links

October, 17, 2014
Oct 17
8:00
AM ET
Remember the ACC’s preseason media poll? OK, we don’t blame you for ignoring it. That was probably a good idea.

In any case, here’s how the Coastal votes stacked up:
1. Miami
2. Duke
3. Virginia Tech
4. North Carolina
5. Georgia Tech
6. Pittsburgh
7. Virginia

Those top four teams all received at least 23 first-place votes (Tech got 1, Pitt got 2, Virginia got none). And after Thursday’s Virginia Tech loss to Pitt, three of those top four teams now have two losses in conference play already. On Saturday, Virginia has a chance to complete the foursome by beating Duke, while securing its spot atop the Coastal Division. And this is why we shouldn’t make preseason predictions.

On the field, Pitt looked significantly better than it had in its previous three games -- all losses. Chad Voytik wasn’t great in the passing game -- 10-of-17 for 92 yards, 1 TD and 1 INT, while not completing a ball to a wideout other than Tyler Boyd -- but he more than made up for it with his legs. Voytik ran 17 times for 135 yards (not counting sacks), including a 49-yard run that set up the Panthers’ decisive touchdown.

That’s been a trend for the Hokies’ defense this season. In six games against FBS teams, Virginia Tech has allowed four quarterbacks to run for at least 120 yards. Non-QB runs against Tech are averaging just 3.5 yards per carry, but quarterbacks (not including sacks) are averaging 7.8 yards per carry this season.

What was clear from Thursday’s game is that the Hokies have a lot of troubles at the moment, but with Tyler Murphy and Anthony Boone still on the schedule down the road, this is one that needs to get fixed quickly.

A few more links:
Pitt lost its past three games as quickly as it won its first three games, so that leaves one question:

Which Pitt team will show up against Virginia Tech on Thursday night?

Will it be the Pitt team that bulldozed opponents behind running back James Conner? Or will it be the Pitt team that suddenly forgot how to block effectively and began committing way too many mistakes?

"We feel like enough is enough," Conner said. "It is a must-win game, and we just need to get back in the victory column. Some things went wrong, and we had some adversity the last couple weeks, but it’s time to get out of that slump we’re in. It was a much-needed bye week to focus on our goal, because it’s still attainable. We’re 1-1 in the ACC. Guys are ready to roll, and we’re excited for the challenge."

[+] EnlargeJames Conner
Gregory J. Fisher/USA TODAY SportsJames Conner hopes to help Pittsburgh get its offense cranking again against Virginia Tech.
Much of the scrutiny has centered on the offense, which has been unable to attain much balance. There are several reasons for that.

Teams started loading the box more to stop Conner. He has not hit 100 yards in his past two contests, and his yards per carry dipped to 3.85. In his first three games against FBS opponents, Conner averaged more than 5 yards per carry.

Stopping Conner means relying on Chad Voytik in the passing game. But so far, Voytik has proven to be too inconsistent. In a 24-19 loss to Virginia, for example, Pitt went 4-of-13 on third down. Voytik threw on 11 of those downs and had only five completions. One was for a touchdown; but twice inside the red zone he threw incomplete on third down.

Pitt did have third-and-10 or longer on six of those downs, so the Panthers did not exactly put themselves in position for success. Voytik also threw a pick-six, which ended up being a huge play in the game.

Not all the blame falls on Voytik, though. Both coach Paul Chryst and Conner talked about receivers needing to do a better job winning one-on-one matchups.

"Each game we've had good runs, but we've got to be able to be cleaner with them all, and also we've got to do a better job on third downs and get more rush attempts and certainly got to do a better job of being more consistent in the throw game," Chryst said.

Inconsistency in the pass game also means a less effective Tyler Boyd, a 1,000-yard receiver last season. Pitt will not win many games if Conner and Boyd fail to score. In the three straight losses, they have one touchdown between them.

"We’re trying our best," Conner said. "Me and Tyler, we like to complement each other. We’ve just got to do it a little bit better."

The Pitt run defense has also had its share of struggles over the past three games, allowing 527 yards on the ground. In the first three, it allowed just 232 total.

There is little doubt the run game for both teams is going to be in the spotlight. Perhaps the downward trend in the Pitt run defense gives Virginia Tech some hope that it will be just fine even though it is missing its top three backs because of injury.

With Trey Edmunds, Shai McKenzie and Marshawn Williams out, J.C. Coleman and Joel Caleb will get the bulk of the carries. The unknown is whether they can be as effective as the top three backs had been to this point in the season. Because Michael Brewer will need an effective run game to help balance out the offense.

"It’s gut-check time," Pitt defensive tackle Darryl Render said. "They’re going to try and run, and that’s what we do, too. It’s going to be a challenge, but we embrace that challenge with open arms."

ACC Week 8 predictions

October, 16, 2014
Oct 16
10:35
AM ET
Adelson: Pitt has not done much of anything right during its three-game losing streak, but the Panthers are facing an opponent that has some issues of its own headed into this game. Virginia Tech is banged up at running back and will rely on J.C. Coleman and Joel Caleb to carry the load. So essentially, the Hokies are down to their fourth and fifth options. That bodes well for the Pitt defense, which has had issues stopping the run. Without an effective run game, Virginia Tech will have a tough time offensively. While the Hokies have a formidable defensive front, James Conner and Tyler Boyd will make enough plays to scramble up the Coastal again. Plus, Virginia Tech is 0-3 at Heinz Field. Pittsburgh 24, Virginia Tech 23

Hale: The story for the Hokies remains the same every week: Don't screw it up. The Virginia Tech defense has been prone to big plays, but during its three-game losing streak Pitt has had just 12 plays of 20 yards or more (85th nationally during that span). Virginia Tech's offense hasn't been terrific, but it's been effective when avoiding turnovers. Among ACC teams, only Boston College has created fewer takeaways than Pitt. In other words, it's a good matchup for Virginia Tech to avoid disaster, and with a bye week to iron out a few kinks the Hokies should be at their best. The wild card, however, could be the ground games. Tech is down two of its top three runners, while Pitt features the ACC's rushing leader in Conner. He'd been struggling of late after a heavy early workload, but last week's bye came at the right time. Still, Virginia Tech has allowed just 412 yards to opposing running backs this season, the sixth-lowest total in the nation. Virginia Tech 27, Pittsburgh 24

Adelson: In a battle between two true freshman quarterbacks and uninspiring offenses, I am going with the defense that has made more plays over the course of the season. The nod goes to Wake Forest by a hair. The Deacs have played well enough defensively to stay in every game but the Florida State contest this season, and they will play well enough at home against Syracuse to score the game-winning points. Wake Forest 13, Syracuse 10

Fortuna: It's AJ Long time for Syracuse, and the freshman will feel all the more comfortable in Winston-Salem after debuting last week against the defending national champions. The Orange's stout front should be able to have its way against Wake Forest's offensive line, as the Deacs have surrendered 24 sacks this season. Wake's defense will give the home team a chance, but it will likely need more than that to get an ACC win. Syracuse 23, Wake Forest 10

Hale: Here's how the season has gone in the Coastal: A favorite emerges, then loses, then is brushed aside by the prognosticators in favor of another trendy team that's bound to lose, too. Last week, it was the Yellow Jackets that were the Coastal darlings, and they fell to Duke, a team that had been swept aside after its own dismal game against Miami. The struggles against Duke were largely Georgia Tech's own doing. For just the second time all season, the Yellow Jackets coughed up the football multiple times, and it cost them. If they can avoid those mistakes against North Carolina and keep their offense on the field, they should have a distinct advantage. The Tar Heels are young along the defensive line and lack significant depth. Tech can run the option, control time of possession to keep UNC's explosive offense off the field, then wear down the Heels' defense in the second half. As Duke showed last week, one loss in the Coastal hardly means a team is done. Georgia Tech 42, North Carolina 38

Shanker: Although the offense received a lot of help from Notre Dame last week, the Tar Heels showed some fight and nearly pulled off the upset. That has to count for something, right? Plus, Georgia Tech is coming off a loss to Duke that would have given the Yellow Jackets a vice grip on the ACC Coastal with a game against Virginia looking like the last tough intra-division game. Let's be honest, I'm grasping at straws. But for some reason I see the Heels winning. North Carolina 38, Georgia Tech 24

Shanker: It's easy to see the circus once again around Florida State and expect the Seminoles to come out flat or distracted, but that's never been the case the past year. The more scrutiny on Jameis Winston, the better he usually performs. I do think it will take its toll a little bit this time, but it's not entirely the reason Florida State edges out a close win. Notre Dame is better than people give it credit for, and if Everett Golson limits turnovers, the Irish are a much harder team to beat. Winston has turned the ball over at critical times, too, and if that continues against Notre Dame, it could end up haunting the Seminoles this time. As we've seen through the first six games, though, the Seminoles know how to win and once again they'll find a way Saturday. Florida State 38, Notre Dame 35

Fortuna: Assuming Winston plays, FSU's offense is simply, as Brian Kelly said last week, another animal compared to what Notre Dame has faced so far. Rashad Greene won bowl MVP honors against the Irish as a freshman three years ago, and the Noles' record-holder should have another big day against a secondary down one more body in fifth-year senior and captain Austin Collinsworth. Golson, provided he avoids the turnover bug of recent weeks, will keep the Irish in the game, but FSU has more offensive firepower, giving the home team the edge in this shootout. Florida State 44, Notre Dame 30

Other unanimous picks

Virginia at Duke: The key for Virginia is at the line of scrimmage. After a slow start to the season, the Hoos have averaged 224 yards per game on the ground in their past three. They'll need to be able to run the ball to beat Duke -- something Georgia Tech struggled with a week ago. More importantly, however, Virginia's ferocious defensive front needs to attack the Blue Devils' offensive line. Slow down Duke's ground game and rattle Anthony Boone into some mistakes and, for one week at least, the new trendy pick for the Coastal can survive. Virginia 24, Duke 17

Clemson at Boston College: Tyler Murphy has been exceptional running BC's option attack this season, but he's yet to face a front as good as Clemson's. After their opening-week struggles against Todd Gurley and Georgia, the Tigers have allowed just one running play of 20 yards or more (a garbage time 40-yard run by South Carolina State) and have surrendered just 275 yards total on the ground, the fewest in the nation. Clemson 24, Boston College 10

NC State at Louisville: It's hard not to feel a little bad for the Wolfpack. This game ends a four-week stretch in which they got Florida State (with Winston fresh off a suspension), Clemson (with a healthy and poised Deshaun Watson) and Boston College (coming off a bye week). Now, the scuffling State offense runs into the buzz saw that is Louisville's top-ranked D. Oh, and the Cardinals are poised to get star receiver DeVante Parker back from injury this week, too. The Wolfpack will end their ACC losing streak soon, but not this week. Louisville 20, NC State 10

Current standings
Shanker: 44-7
Adelson: 41-10
Fortuna: 41-10
Hale: 41-10

ACC playoff watch: Week 8

October, 15, 2014
Oct 15
3:00
PM ET
For the ACC's playoff picture, we've effectively reached critical mass with Saturday's showdown between Florida State and Notre Dame.

Where the ACC stands: Florida State and Notre Dame did what they had to last week to ensure a marquee event in Tallahassee on Saturday, but the rest of the ACC took another hit. The league slid back behind the Big Ten in ESPN's conference power rankings, and beyond FSU and Clemson, no other ACC team ranks in our FPI top 30 (Virginia Tech is next at No. 34).

Top playoff contenders: Florida State (No. 2 AP, No. 4 FPI), Duke (No. 39 FPI), Georgia Tech (No. 47 FPI)

Nonconference record: 35-14 overall (1-1 last week), 21-11 vs. FBS, 4-7 vs. Power 5 (plus Notre Dame)

Week 7 recap: With Louisville's loss to Clemson, another ACC team was officially eliminated from playoff contention, according to ESPN's Eliminator. The Cardinals had an outside shot at the playoff with a win over the Tigers and victories later in the season against Florida State and Notre Dame, but as it stands now, just three ACC teams remain.

Two of those three went head-to-head last week, with Duke ending Georgia Tech's undefeated season. The Blue Devils remain alive for the playoff they win out and get a lot of help around the country, but their weak nonconference slate means the path will be particularly tough.

Georgia Tech's loss doesn't completely doom the Yellow Jackets, who could still win the wild Coastal and potentially finish up with wins over Clemson (No. 13 FPI), Georgia (No. 2 FPI) and Florida State (No. 4 FPI). That would certainly be a résumé worth considering for the playoff committee, but there was little in Tech's performance Saturday to suggest it's capable of pulling off that trifecta.

That leaves Florida State, which took care of business against Syracuse last week, while Notre Dame struggled but eventually emerged victorious over UNC to set up a top-five showdown in Tallahassee on Saturday.

Week 8 preview: If Duke and Georgia Tech's playoff hopes remain on life support, the plug could be pulled this week. The Blue Devils host Virginia, the Coastal Division leader, and the Hoos' stout defense should be an interesting challenge for a Blue Devils' offense still looking for a consistent identity.

Georgia Tech, meanwhile, travels to North Carolina in a game that features the two worst defenses in the ACC, by yards-per-play surrendered vs. FBS teams. It was this time last year that the Tar Heels' turned around their season, and they certainly appeared improved last week against Notre Dame.

But again, the clear headliner this week -- and, really, for the rest of the season in the ACC -- is the Irish and the Seminoles. The two QBs are a combined 35-1 as starters (with Everett Golson's lone loss coming in the BCS national championship game), but there's also plenty of drama looming off the field.

It's become a seemingly weekly occurrence for Jameis Winston to find himself in hot water, but this week's revelations about autographs is an issue of compliance rather than a legal matter or a coach's discretion. Winston has shown he's more than capable of shrugging off controversy to perform at a high level on Saturdays, but the biggest question moving forward is how many more Saturdays Winston will be available.

Regardless, the showdown in Tallahassee could be a de facto play-in game for both teams. If Notre Dame wins, it's in position to swipe a playoff spot, which means there will be just three remaining vacancies for the Power 5 conferences. And with the SEC gearing up for multiple bids -- it has five of the FPI's top six teams right now -- there's little margin for error for FSU and no additional marquee games on the schedule to rebrand its narrative.

ACC Show: Week 8 (2 ET)

October, 15, 2014
Oct 15
10:00
AM ET
ESPN.com ACC reporters Andrea Adelson, Matt Fortuna, David Hale and Jared shanker meet up to discuss this week's battle of Top 25 unbeatens -- Notre Dame vs. Syracuse -- and answer your questions live on screen.

ACC morning links

October, 15, 2014
Oct 15
8:00
AM ET
We start today, like most other days, talking about quarterbacks.

Louisville is going back to Will Gardner as its starter against NC State after two games with Reggie Bonnafon taking the first-string snaps. Syracuse, meanwhile, is looking more and more like it will be starting AJ Long at Wake Forest.

Gardner missed the Cardinals' wins over Wake Forest and Syracuse with a knee injury. He relieved Bonnafon at Clemson, throwing for 150 yards and a touchdown. Bonnafon is still expected to play.

"Reggie came in and did a really good job and won us a couple games," offensive coordinator Garrick McGee said, according to the (Louisville) Courier-Journal's Jeff Greer. "Will is back healthy now, so we're going to put in Will first."

Long, meanwhile, is taking most of the first-team reps for the Orange, who lost Terrel Hunt on Oct. 3 for 4-6 weeks because of a broken fibula and lost Austin Wilson late in Saturday's loss to Florida State to a big hit that the school has deemed an "upper-body injury." Wilson had not been cleared to practice as of Tuesday.

"He's feeling a lot better, and we're just trying to be smart with him," Shafer said, according to the (Syracuse) Post-Standard's Nate Mink.

Here are the rest of your ACC links ...

ACC Upset Watch: Week 8

October, 14, 2014
Oct 14
3:00
PM ET
We are only keeping one team off Upset Watch this week. Which means there might be a better than 50 percent chance the #ACCBlackCat will strike Louisville. As for the other six games ...

Thursday night

Virginia Tech (4-2, 1-1) at Pitt (3-3, 1-1), 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN. Line: Virginia Tech by 1. The Panthers have lost three straight and have called this a "must win" given the division stakes on the line. While on paper the matchups seem to favor Virginia Tech, the Hokies have not yet faced a runner like James Conner, whose size and athleticism makes him difficult to bring down. Plus, Virginia Tech is banged up at running back. The Hokies may end up starting J.C. Coleman, who began the year No. 4 on the depth chart. Will they still be able to run on a porous Pitt defense without their best backs? Note: Pitt has won the last three games between the teams in Pittsburgh.

Saturday

Syracuse (2-4, 0-2) at Wake Forest (2-4, 0-2), noon ET, ESPN3. Line: Syracuse by 4.5. The Orange are one of the most banged-up teams in the ACC and are now dealing with another injury to quarterback Austin Wilson, who is day-to-day. A.J. Long will get the majority of the reps with the first team. Injuries and offensive upheaval never bode well, especially on the road against a defense that has held its own in nearly every game this season.

Virginia (4-2, 2-0) at Duke (5-1, 1-1), 12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN3. Line: Duke by 2.5. Virginia is all alone atop the Coastal Division but is the underdog. That is Coastal life for you. Duke has won five of the last six matchups and is coming in with some confidence after a huge road win at Georgia Tech. But let's not forget why Virginia is playing well this season. Its defense is among the best in the ACC and will give the Hoos a chance to pick up the win here.

No. 24 Clemson (4-2, 3-1) at Boston College (4-2, 1-1), 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU. Line: Clemson by 6.5. The Eagles are not a pushover, having upset USC earlier this season. Even last year, BC nearly upset Clemson in Death Valley thanks to its power run game. Well the power run game is back, albeit with different runners, and that could present a challenge once again. Plus, Clemson will start Cole Stoudt, who has struggled in his time as quarterback. The Tigers scored no offensive touchdowns a week ago and have not had much of an identity when Deshaun Watson is out of the mix.

Georgia Tech (5-1, 2-1) at North Carolina (2-4, 0-2), 7 p.m. ET, ESPNU. Line: Georgia Tech by 2.5. Given the matchup, Georgia Tech should be able to run all day on North Carolina. But if last week is any indication, the Tar Heels might be finding a rhythm on offense. Marquise Williams nearly single-handedly upset Notre Dame on the road. There will be opportunities to make some big plays on the inconsistent Georgia Tech defense. This could become a shootout, and if that happens it could be anyone's game to win.

No. 5 Notre Dame (6-0) at No. 2 Florida State (6-0), 8 p.m. ET, ABC. Line: FSU by 12. Florida State has not blown out its elite competition to date, but Notre Dame comes into the game after a shaky performance against North Carolina so the double-digit line is somewhat understandable. Still, the Noles have yet to dominate a complete game from start to finish. If Everett Golson can hold on to the ball -- he has nine turnovers in the last three games -- he will give the Irish a chance to pull the big road upset.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

ACC SCOREBOARD