PITT FOOTBALL Cornerback Hall's suspension makes Hokies coach nervous
Virginia Tech could have trouble defending Panthers wideout Larry Fitzgerald.
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- If he had his choice, Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer probably wouldn't bench star cornerback DeAngelo Hall for a single play against Pittsburgh star receiver Larry Fitzgerald.
No wonder Beamer can't help but feel nervous knowing Hall must sit out the first half of Saturday night's game against the No. 25 Panthers for fighting with Miami's Antrel Rolle last week.
One misread coverage, one false step, one missed tackle on a single play is all Fitzgerald needs to transform a routine play into a touchdown, as the Hokies know from experience.
Fitzgerald's three touchdown catches led Pitt to a 28-21 upset victory over then-No. 3 Virginia Tech last season, a breakout performance against a previously undefeated team that signaled Fitzgerald's arrival as a major star.
Before that, Fitzgerald had four touchdown catches in eight college games. Since then, the sophomore has caught 24 touchdown passes in 13 games -- 16 in eight games this season -- and has emerged as a top contender for the Heisman Trophy.
Hall's 30-minute suspension follows the recent loss of cornerback Garnell Wilds to a knee injury and leaves No. 5 Virginia Tech (7-1, 3-1 in Big East) with only two experienced cornerbacks, Vinnie Fuller and Eric Green. The lack of depth may cause Beamer to move free safety Jimmy Williams to cornerback and play backup Mike Daniels at safety.
Count on Pitt quarterback Rod Rutherford (25 touchdown passes, five interceptions) to throw frequently to the side where Hall normally plays, at least during the first half.
"I expect we'll see a few balls in the air," he said.
Pitt coach Walt Harris is more concerned with what his players do than who is defending them, saying, "When the ball is in the air, it's his [Fitzgerald's]. We just have to get him the ball."
Pitt's problem heading into its first game against a ranked opponent this season isn't who can catch the ball, but who can run it.
Last season, Brandon Miree's 161-yard night helped Pitt rush for 275 yards, allowing the Panthers to secure the lead Fitzgerald's scoring catches gave them. But Miree has a stress fracture in his foot and hasn't played in six weeks, and Pitt (6-2, 3-0) hasn't found a suitable replacement.
Miree's absence points to the biggest disparity between the two teams: their running games.
Run game key
Tech's Kevin Jones is the Big East's most dynamic runner, averaging 107.9 yards per game and 5.5 per carry in an offense that has rushed for 1,736 yards. Pitt, by contrast, has run for only about half as many yards, 948, and has been outrushed in its last six games.
Notre Dame upset the Panthers 20-14 on Oct. 11 by outrushing them 352-8, with Julius Jones running for a school-record 262 yards. Since then, Rutgers, Syracuse and Boston College combined for 427 yards rushing in losses to Pitt.
Pitt hopes it is catching Virginia Tech at a vulnerable time. The Hokies looked flat and uninspired in losing to West Virginia 28-7 two weeks ago, but were revved-up from the start of their 31-7 rout of then-No. 2 Miami last week.
The Hokies don't figure to be at such a high level emotionally for a second straight game, especially away from Lane Stadium. However, Harris understands the dangers of counting on the home-field advantage.
The Panthers lost the last two games they played at home before a crowd as large as that expected Saturday night, to West Virginia last year and to Notre Dame last month. About 65,000 are expected.
The hype and excitement "are nice and important to us when we are recruiting," Harris said. "But it doesn't have anything to do with how we play. I'm sure our crowd will be excited, but we are the ones who have to do well."