PITTSBURGH - Pittsburgh can bring the jumbled ACC Coastal Division into slightly better focus on Saturday against Georgia Tech. Or the Yellow Jackets can snap a two-game losing streak and turn an already murky division race into something borderline unrecognizable.
Guess which scenario the Panthers are hoping for?
Pitt resurrected its season with a rousing 21-16 triumph over Virginia Tech last week, ending a three-game skid behind quarterback Chad Voytik. The sophomore ran for 118 yards, passed for 92 more and even caught the first pass of his college career as the Panthers (4-3, 2-1) jumped out early and held on.
Voytik fought back tears as his school's alma mater played in the aftermath. Yet when pressed on whether it can be a pivotal moment for a program that's consistently spun its wheels this decade, Voytik offered a sobering assessment.
"We'll see," he said. "It can do some big things. It can be our turning point. We can look back and say this is where we turned the page and we got this thing on the right track."
It's a track the Yellow Jackets (5-2, 2-2) appeared to be on then they ripped off five straight wins to start the year. Losses to Duke and North Carolina followed, the latter a 48-43 shootout in which the Tar Heels drove 75 yards to score the game-winning touchdown with 12 seconds left.
Suddenly, all of Georgia Tech's early season momentum has vanished thanks to a defense that is allowing 6.79 yards per play.
"We're having trouble getting pressure on the passer with the front four, for sure," coach Paul Johnson said. "We're not getting much production out of that. Our linebacker play has been spotty at best and we haven't covered well. Other than that, I think we're doing pretty good."
One way for the Yellow Jackets to help out the defense is hold on to the ball, something they did with ease during a 21-10 victory over Pitt last year despite the best efforts of Panther defensive lineman Aaron Donald. The senior had 11 tackles, six of them for loss, to go with a sack and two forced fumbles in a performance that may have been his best in a year in which he won every major award for a player at his position.
"He was unstoppable," defensive tackle Daryl Render said. "It seemed like he was living in the backfield the entire game."
Donald now works in the NFL, where he's a rookie with the St. Louis Rams. In his place is a young but improving group that held the Hokies to 26 yards rushing. Stopping Georgia Tech, however, is another matter entirely.
"Everyone has to truly play their assignment," coach Paul Chryst said. "You have to be disciplined in that, and that gives you a chance."
Other things to look for in what could be an elimination game in the Coastal race for the loser.
NEW DAYS: The Yellow Jackets will be without senior running back Zach Laskey, who is out with a shoulder injury. Former quarterback Syngyn Days will start in Laskey's place. Days switched positions in the offseason after failing to beat out Justin Thomas and Tim Byerly for playing time.
RUN CHAD RUN: The Panthers unveiled a new wrinkle in their offense against the Hokies, when they ran a lot of quarterback read options that gave Voytik the choice of handing it to James Conner or taking off. When the Hokies focused on Conner - the ACC's leading rusher - Voytik bolted. Chryst cautioned he's not quite sure the next time Voytik will be given a chance to shake loose.
"Just because it worked against (Virginia Tech) doesn't mean it's necessarily going to carry forward," Chryst said. "We'll see."
BIG PLAY: The Yellow Jackets average 15 pass attempts a game, but what they lack in volume they make up for in production. Thomas is averaging a whopping 19.2 yards per completion. If the Panthers can't stop the Georgia Tech running game with the front seven, it could be a long afternoon.
BOUNTIFUL BOYD: Perhaps the most stunning thing about Pitt's productivity on offense is the absence of a threat in the passing game beyond Tyler Boyd. The sophomore has 36 receptions so far. No other Panther has more than 14. Pitt needs to continue to find creative ways to get Boyd open to take some of the pressure off Conner.
LONG TIME COMING: This is Georgia Tech's first visit to Pitt since 1920. The Panthers handed Georgia Tech its only loss in 1918 and beat the Yellow Jackets (then the Golden Tornado) on three straight visits to the Steel City.