Admission to the Bud Foster Quarterback Club pretty much requires a Heisman Trophy, Pro Bowl paycheck or friendship with the bouncer. The list of passers Virginia Tech’s veteran defensive coordinator has schemed against is that exclusive.
A 6-foot-5, fifth-year senior playing for the first time since 2010, Savage is a pure pocket guy with a big-league arm. As important, he’s surrounded by top-shelf receivers reminiscent of former Panthers that enjoyed career games against Tech.
Savage sustained a concussion in a 14-3 victory over Virginia two weeks ago, but extended rest courtesy of Pitt’s subsequent open date put him on track to play Saturday at Lane Stadium. Savage threw for 191 yards and a touchdown against the Cavaliers, but a fierce rush sacked him seven times and harassed him into two interceptions.
If the Hokies (5-1, 2-0 ACC) can match that pressure, the immobile Savage will be toast. But if Pitt’s offensive line protects, Savage and the Panthers (3-1, 2-1 ACC) could make the Hokies miserable.
That’s certainly what happened at Duke, where Savage passed for a career-high 424 yards and tied an ACC record with six touchdown passes in a 58-55 victory. OK, so it was Duke. But there was no denying Savage’s arm strength or the quality of his wideouts.
A 6-4 redshirt senior, Devin Street caught four passes for 74 yards in a 35-17 win over Tech last season. Moreover, he’s seven receptions shy of becoming the Panthers’ career leader.
Given Pitt’s history of receivers — think Larry Fitzgerald, Antonio Bryant and Latief Grim — that’s impressive. Fitzgerald, by the way, was 2-0 against the Hokies, catching a combined 13 passes for 213 yards and four touchdowns in 2002 and ’03 from Rod Rutherford. In 1999, Bryant and Grim combined for an astonishing 25 receptions and 403 yards against Tech, making the Panthers’ quarterback that night, David Priestley, look like Dan Marino.
But back to this season. Making Street and Savage more effective is 6-2 true freshman Tyler Boyd, an acclaimed recruit from Clarion, Pa. Through four games, Boyd and Street have 23 and 21 catches, respectively, for 425 and 445 yards. That’s darn near 20 yards a reception.
Street even had success against Pitt’s toughest opponent to date: Florida State. He caught six balls for 141 yards in a 41-13 setback.
And let’s not forget, Virginia Tech this season has allowed twice as many touchdowns passing (six) as rushing (three).
Coming out of high school in Springfield, Pa., Savage had scholarship offers from the likes of Virginia, Tennessee, Michigan, Florida State, Louisville, Georgia, Miami, Penn State and Pitt. He chose Rutgers instead and started 11 games as a true freshman in 2009, helping the Scarlet Knights to a 9-4 season and throwing for 294 yards and two scores in a bowl conquest of Central Florida.
But after an injury-plagued sophomore year, Savage transferred to Arizona in 2011. He lasted a semester there, never playing a snap and watching as the Wildcats replaced coach Mike Stoops with Rich Rodriguez. A poor fit for Rodriguez’s spread/read option, Savage transferred to Pitt and sat out last season, the Panthers’ first under Paul Chryst.
Savage’s older brother, Bryan, played quarterback at Wisconsin when Chryst was a Badgers assistant. Savage inherited the job this season from Tino Sunseri, who started 39 games for Pitt.
“You never quite know how a guy’s going to perform,” Chryst said recently of his expectations for Savage. “That’s part of the beauty of it. But I think Tommy does a great job. He’s certainly a talented player. I mean, he’s got a major college arm, certainly, and he’s a competitor.
“I love the way that he’s approached his preparation and work ethic. … I also think he’s a guy that’s enjoying that whole process and comes out and enjoys practice in the summer and the offseason, enjoys that preparation. So I think it's a guy that certainly has some God-given abilities and works at being the best he can in all the different ways that you have. So that's where as a coach he's enjoyable to be around because he's trying to make the most of the opportunity that's in front of him this year.
“On the field, off the field, he's doing all the things that you want from your quarterback.”