PITTSBURGH (AP) — George Aston has seen a lot in five years at Pittsburgh. Two coaching staffs. A handful of big-time upsets that hinted at a turnaround. Just as many baffling losses that have ultimately prevented it from happening.
Still, the burly fullback hasn't seen this: it's November and the Panthers are in first place in the ACC's Coastal Division heading into a visit from Virginia Tech. Pitt's first trip to a conference title game is within reach, an achievement that Aston and the rest of the 19 seniors who will play their final game at Heinz Field on Saturday know would leave a tangible lasting legacy.
"We haven't been in this position this late in the season before," Aston said. "It's pretty late in the season, we control our own destiny. We've just got to win."
Something the Panthers (5-4, 4-1) have managed to do with regularity over the last month, reviving what threatened to be a lost season. Pitt has won three of four — the lone setback a narrow 19-14 nonconference loss to unbeaten Notre Dame on the road — to move into the driver's seat in the typically unwieldy Coastal, which could have its sixth different champion in as many years.
"I felt like we put our mind to it, this team can do a lot of different things," defensive end DeWayne Hendrix said. "Just us going through adversity as a team, losing games that we weren't supposed to and now we're finally starting to get into a groove. We always knew we should be winning those games. We just didn't know when it was going to happen."
This might be the year. Emphasis on might. The Panthers, however, are wary. As promising as the last month has been, it can come undone very quickly. A team built on running the ball and defense understands it has little margin for error. Still, they like their chances.
"A lot of people doubted us," Hendrix said. "People are going to doubt you when you're losing but when you're winning, they're going to jump on the bandwagon. We know how good we can be but we can't be sidetracked on that. We've got to go out and grind each week just like everybody else."
Something Virginia Tech (4-4, 3-2) has been unable to do during a stretch in which it has dropped three of four. Still, the Hokies can revive their own chances at capturing the Coastal — and salvaging an uneven year — by beating the Panthers for the third straight time.
"It's not our job to be frustrated, it's our job to try to fix, coach and mentor," Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente said. "Continuing to try to push these guys forward so that they can execute on a more consistent basis so that as a team we have a chance to have more consistent play against very good people."
Virginia Tech edged Pitt 20-14 in Blacksburg last season thanks to a dramatic goal-line stand in which the Hokies stopped Pitt on four shots from inside the Virginia Tech 5 in the final minute. The loss ultimately cost the Panthers a shot at a bowl game and the near miss has come up frequently over the last 12 months.
"We all know what happened," Pitt sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett said. "We remember it clearly. It's extra motivation this week."
The Hokies have been a bit of an erratic mess this season thanks in large part to an inability to get things done at Lane Stadium. Virginia Tech is just 1-3 at home — including 0-2 in the league — but has been solid on the road. The Hokies have won four straight ACC road games dating to a victory at Virginia in the 2017 season finale. Quarterback Ryan Willis has been a little more productive away from Lane Stadium. His road quarterback rating of 147.3 is a tick above what he puts up at home (134.9).
TRYING THIS AGAIN
In Boston College last week, the Hokies played the team whose style most resembles the very physical approach Pittsburgh takes offensively and allowed 219 yards rushing. That came a week after they allowed 465 to Georgia Tech. With perhaps his youngest defense ever, Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster hopes having played the Eagles will help. "Yeah, they're going to be similar," he said. "Big and physical up front. Big, physical, athletic tailbacks. They're going to be very similar in a lot of ways. Maybe it will benefit us a little bit, but we'll see."
AP Sports Writer Hank Kurz in Richmond, Virginia contributed to this report.