PITTSBURGH – During tonight’s huge Atlantic Coast Conference matchup at Heinz Field, Virginia Tech’s passing offense was in dreamland all night going up against the Pittsburgh Panthers secondary. On another side of the ball, one of the Hokies’ other influential figures in lighting up the scoreboard had literally dreamed of this day to come.
It turned out that 21 of the Hokies’ 39 points in their three-point win over the Panthers came from the right foot of junior Joey Slye, the Stafford, Va. native who grew up as a die-hard Pittsburgh Steelers fan. When the Hokies’ offense proved to be profligate with their multiple opportunities deep inside of Pittsburgh territory in the first quarter, Slye was there to pick them up, going three-for-three on kicks in the first 17 minutes of the game to give Tech a 9-0 lead. Every time Slye jogged onto the field to put three on the Heinz Field scoreboard was fantasy turning into reality.
“Honestly, it’s an honor,” said Slye, who ended up tying the school record for most points by a kicker in a single game with 21 and tying the ACC record for six field goals made in a game. “I’ve been a Steelers’ fan my whole life, so coming to Heinz Field is one of my favorite things to do. It’s just an awesome experience for me and my family to be able to kick here.”
Slye was perfect in his six field goal attempts in the game, with four of them coming at the notorious “river end” of the stadium – the unclosed side of the stadium which faces the Allegheny River and causes unpredictable winds that has proven intimidating to any kicker over the years, no matter what level of game is played. His job was made easier by having five of his six kicks being no longer than 31 yards, but, after admittedly tweaking his kicking swing during the middle of the season. Slye was super confident that he would be ready to make his football dream come true one to truly remember.
“I could have kicked them with my eyes closed and I knew I was going to make them,” Slye said.
You could make the same argument that Hokies quarterback Jerod Evans could have thrown all of his 43 pass attempts with his eyes closed and still produced the career-high 406 yards that he threw for tonight. It was obvious coming into the game that Hokies would want to exploit the Panthers’ league-worst pass defense, as the Panthers gave up 299 yards per game through the air. It was also expected that Virginia Tech would want to use the height of its two best pass catchers, 6-2 wide receiver Isaiah Ford and 6-7 tight end Bucky Hodges to cause problems in the Pitt secondary.
What probably wasn’t expected was the sheer number of fade patterns and jump balls that Evans would throw in the contest, as it appeared that almost every other play turned out to be an alley-oop pass to a Virginia Tech wide receiver against Pittsburgh head coach Pat Narduzzi’s bump-and-run coverage.
The strategy was lethally efficient; along with Evans’ yards total, three different wide receivers had over 100 yards receiving. The Hokies also drew pass interference penalties on two separate drives that led to scores.
“They [Pittsburgh] don’t give you a lot of choice to make a play with lots of people in the box, leverages, and how compact they are in there,” said Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente, who led the Hokies to their first win in the Steel City since 1999 and their first-ever win at Heinz Field after four previous unsuccessful tries. “Our team accepted the challenge and won some of them and didn’t win some of them. But as a staff, we’ve got to know that we’ve got to keep plugging away at it because that’s the way they’re going to play.”
Many of those passes went to Ford, a first-team All-ACC conference selection last year who’s now on pace to match or eclipse his numbers from a year ago. Ford had 10 catches for 143 yards, with one of his catches on an acrobatic juggling catch in the second quarter in which he ended up pulling the ball away from cornerback Phillipie Motley as they both hit the ground. While that jump ball set up a field goal then, Ford also caught another jump ball in the fourth quarter at the goal line to provide the Hokies with the winning score, giving the Hokies a 36-26 lead with 7:20 remaining.
“We felt like [jump balls] are to our advantage; the 50-50 balls we try to turn them into 70-30 balls or 80-20 balls, so any time the ball is up in the air, we feel like it’s ours,” said Ford, whose touchdown reception now gives him 23 career touchdown catches, breaking Antonio Freeman’s old school record.
Hodges ended the game with 145 yards on six catches, while another wide receiver, Cam Phillips, had 109 yards receiving on six receptions.
The Hokies dominated for much of the game, but the Panthers never were really out of it on the scoreboard due to its defense continuing to force Virginia Tech to field goals when in prime position to score six. Pittsburgh briefly took the lead in the third quarter, at 21-16, after a one-yard touchdown run by James Conner, his third rushing score of the contest. Conner finished the game with 141 yards rushing on just 19 carries.
“He’s a beast,” said Narduzzi after the game. “He’s a weapon and they couldn’t take him away. I wish we would have given the ball to him 15 more times.”
The weapon the Panthers weren’t able to stop on the field were the fade patterns and Slye’s right foot. With the win, the Hokies now are in control of the Coastal Division with a 4-1 conference record as they’re tied with North Carolina for first place in the loss column. Virginia Tech owns the tiebreaker with the Tar Heels due to its 34-3 win over Carolina in Chapel Hill on Oct. 8, so wins in each of the Hokies’ final three conference games will send them to the ACC Championship Game in Orlando.
If that occurs, then the Hokies would have the chance to accomplish their ultimate dream: winning their first ACC Championship since 2010.
[Cover photo (Jerod Evans) courtesy of Justin Berl/Getty Images]