Trailing Pittsburgh by two touchdowns Saturday, Virginia Tech caught a break when Kevin Harper missed a 35-yard field goal. On the very next snap, defensive end Devin Cook smothered tailback Michael Holmes behind the line, causing a fumble that Eric Williams recovered.
Two Ray Graham runs later, Pitt led 21-0 early in the second quarter.
Early in the fourth quarter, down 28-17, the Hokies took over at the Panthers’ 36 on Antone Exum’s interception. Momentum seemed to be shifting.
But on first down, defensive tackle Aaron Donald manhandled the interior of Tech’s line and hit J.C. Coleman for a 6-yard loss. Two incompletions later, the Hokies punted.
Now flip to the other side of the ball.
On Pitt’s third possession, with the Panthers pinned at their own 14, true freshman tailback Rushel Shell had consecutive carries that gained 8, 2, 11 and 11 yards. Tech pinned Pitt again, this time at the 12, early in the fourth quarter. Shell then gained 13 and 29 yards on back-to-back rushes.
Both those drives ended in Panthers touchdowns.
Those were defining sequences of Pitt’s 35-17 thrashing of Tech. It was hat-on-hat simple. The Panthers could run, the Hokies could not.
Pitt outrushed Tech 254-59, startling numbers for a program steeped in establishing the run on offense and stuffing the run on defense. The margin is even more troubling against an unranked, previously winless opponent such as Pitt.
Youngstown State and Cincinnati averaged a combined 6.0 yards per carry in beating the Panthers (1-2). The Hokies (2-1) averaged 2.3.
Tailbacks Holmes, Coleman and Marcus Scales were even less productive, netting 22 yards on 17 attempts. Eight of those 17 carries gained zero or negative yardage, including a third-quarter fourth-and-1 on which linebacker Shane Gordon and safety Jason Hendricks tackled Holmes for no gain.
Tech’s lone rushing pulse came during the second quarter when third-teamer Martin Scales had runs of 10 and 6 yards. But he never played during the second half.
“Freshmen are playing like freshmen at times,” coach Frank Beamer said Monday of Holmes and Coleman. “They’re going to be OK, though.”
Losing guard David Wang to an ankle injury in the third quarter – seldom-used sophomore Matt Arkema is his backup – hurt, but that doesn’t explain or excuse the previous two quarters of futility.
Alabama outrushed Tech 268-64 in 2009, and LSU bulldozed the Hokies 297-71 in ’07. But those were eventual national champions.
Saturday was the program’s largest rushing deficit against an unranked opponent in nine years: West Virginia outrushed Tech 264-65 in 2003.
The 59 yards rushing were the Hokies’ fewest against an unranked team since the 2007 opener, when they managed only 33 yards against East Carolina.
Keep in mind, also, that Tech’s meager total wasn’t skewed by negative sack yardage. Pitt’s two sacks of Logan Thomas cost the Hokies only 4 yards.
Conversely, when Alabama limited Tech to 64 yards rushing, the Hokies lost 38 yards on five sacks of Tyrod Taylor. Similarly, when Tech managed only 66 ground yards against Stanford in the January 2011 Orange Bowl, Taylor was sacked eight times for minus-70 yards.
No, Saturday was strictly about poor blocking and tentative running on offense, and bad tackling and gap maintenance on defense.
Given Tech’s young linemen and tailbacks, the offense’s troubles weren’t shocking. Considering the Hokies’ experienced defense, the weak tackling, against a no-frills offense at that, was.
Losing cornerback Kyle Fuller, the team’s surest tackler, to a second-quarter shoulder injury was a blow.
“That caused some confusion,” Beamer said, citing communication issues and people playing new positions.
But again, that doesn’t excuse the collective breakdowns.
Pitt’s Ray Graham is a proven tailback, so his 94 yards aren’t disconcerting, especially since he averaged only 3.9 yards on his 24 carries. But Shell’s 6.8 average and 157 yards were eye-opening.
The 6-foot, 215-pound Shell was a major-league prospect coming out of Hopewell High in western Pennsylvania, the same school that produced Tony Dorsett, Pitt’s 1976 Heisman Trophy winner. He rushed for a state-record 9,078 yards and set a national record with 39 consecutive 100-yard games.
According to Rivals.com, Shell’s scholarship offers included Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Ohio State, UCLA, West Virginia and Tennessee. He showed why Saturday, running with patience and power and rarely going down at first contact.
Shell was suspended from Pitt's opener against Youngstown State for an unspecified violation of team rules and logged just eight carries against Cincinnati. He earned plenty more Saturday.
Had the Panthers fed Graham a couple more times, they’d have become the first Hokies opponent since Syracuse in 1994 to have two 100-yard rushers (Malcolm Thomas 185 and Kirby Dar Dar 108).
Beamer declined to speculate Monday on Fuller’s availability for Saturday’s home game against Bowling Green. But he believes all the errors “can be corrected.”
“I think everyone is going to deal with adversity,” he said. “How you react to it is the deal there.”
I can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow me at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP
Here’s a link to my Daily Press print columns, including one from Saturday’s game.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times