THE MATCHUP: Pitt (4-2, 1-1) AT Virginia (2-3, 1-0)
WHEN: 12:30 PM EST
WHERE: Scott Stadium, Charlottesville, VA
HOW TO WATCH: WTAE; ACC Network
HOW TO LISTEN: 93.7 The Fan & The Pitt IMG Sports Network
It will be tough for Pitt to surpass the suspense of last weekend’s win over Georgia Tech. A tipped-ball touchdown, a fourth down stop, and a ricocheted game-winning field goal produced the most thrilling ending yet in a season full of final-minute outcomes. The Panthers now travel to Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend in search of their first road victory of 2016; and as narrow 3-point favorites, they may challenge that suspense after all.
Virginia is led by first-year head coach, Bronco Mendenhall. Following a 4-8 season in 2015, Mike London resigned as the head coach of UVA after 6 seasons and a 27-46 overall record. The University of Virginia hired Brigham Young’s Mendenhall hoping that he could revive their program just as he did at BYU. The initial results, however, were quite unsettling for Cavalier fans. Mendenhall’s tenure at UVA began with a 37-20 home loss to FCS opponent Richmond. The Wahoos then proceeded to lose their next 2 games on the road to Oregon and Connecticut. Fielding an 0-3 record, Virginia recovered by defeating Central Michigan and Duke in consecutive weeks; and after a bye last week, the Cavs will aim to reach .500 on homecoming weekend by defeating the Panthers.
After facing a run oriented team last weekend, Pitt must once again subject their 123rd ranked pass defense to a team capable of moving the ball through the air. UVA ranks 28th nationally in passing yards-per-game, averaging 291.4 ypg behind starting quarterback Kurt Benkert. Benkert, a transfer from East Carolina, unseated returning starter Matt Johns prior to the season. Johns ranked third in the ACC last year with 2,810 yards passing, while adding 20 touchdowns to his total yardage. However, Johns demonstrated a knack for putting the ball into the opponent’s hands as well, throwing 17 interceptions on the year. Benkert has been quite productive as the Cavaliers’ new starter, completing 119 of 199 passes for 1,455 yards, 13 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions.
Benkert will be throwing the ball to a receiving corps highlighted by receivers Keeon Johnson and Olamide Zaccheaus. Johnson, a 6’3” 215-pound senior, has 26 receptions for 264 yards and 3 touchdowns. Zaccheaus, a 5’8” 190-pound sophomore, leads the Cavaliers in receiving with 26 receptions for 340 yards and 4 touchdowns. In Nigerian, Olamide means “the blessing has come.” For Pitt, talented receivers like Johnson and Zaccheaus have been anything but a blessing this season. With top cornerback Avonte Maddox doubtful for Saturday, the Panthers’ depth will be tested if they are to break the curse.
On the ground, Albert Reid leads UVA in rushing with 59 attempts for 318 yards and 4 touchdowns. 2015 third-team All-ACC honoree and 5-star all-purpose back, Taquan Mizzell, is second with 260 yards on 52 attempts and 2 touchdowns. Mizzell is a versatile back, having set the ACC single-season record for receiving yards by a running back in 2015 with 721. This season, he has 21 receptions for 171 yards and a touchdown. As Pat Narduzzi mentioned in his weekly press conference, the Panthers still remember Mizzell from last year.
“The Mizzell kid, No. 4, their tailback, I remember No. 4 from last year. He was, my opinion, by far their best football player. He can beat you in the run game and he’s a great receiver coming out of the backfield screens.” Naduzzi added, “He hit us on a couple wheel routes a year ago, which really doesn’t matter what they did a year ago. But it does matter that we know that guy. Our kids know who he is. So we’ll know where No. 4 is in the run game and pass game all day.”
Defensively, UVA shifted from a 4-3 formation to the 3-4 upon Mendenhall’s arrival. Before the season, Paul Guttman of SB Nation theorized that the Cav’s personnel suit their new coach’s scheme better than the 4-3. However, Virginia’s 111th ranking in total defense suggests that Virginia is experiencing difficulty adapting to the new system.
Up front, UVA’s defensive line is highlighted by former 5-star tackle, Andrew Brown. Brown, a 6’4” 290-pound junior, has 19 tackles, 2 sacks, 4.5 tackles-for-loss, and a fumble recovery from the defensive end position. He lines up next to senior captain, Donte Wilkins. Wilkins is a stout 6’1” 300-pound nose tackle who has recorded 22 tackles, 1 sack, and a quarterback hurry this season.
Behind the front 3 are the top-2 tacklers in the ACC from last year: junior inside linebacker Micah Kiser, and junior safety Quin Blanding. Kiser, a second-team All-ACC performer in 2015, holds a team-high 58 tackles, 5.0 tackles-for-loss, 3.5 sacks, and 2 forced fumbles. Blanding, another 2015 second-team All-ACC honoree, has 46 tackles and an interception on the year. He was the number 5 recruit in the country 3 years ago, and currently projects as a 4th round draft pick per cbssports.com. Blanding’s production this season is even more impressive when considering his struggles with injury.
“From fall camp on Quin has practiced one day a week. That’s on Thursdays,” said Mendenhall at Monday’s press conference. “His injury has been more significant, longer lasting than any of us had hoped or expected. He’s not played yet to full speed, nor full potential. And I think the bye week, if it will benefit any player, Quin is probably the one that will have benefited most from that in a little bit of additional time. And we monitor his volume a little bit more than the other players.”
Blanding’s form will be integral when attempting to stop a Panther offense that has averaged 39.2 points-per-game over the past five weeks; the highest total by a Pitt offense in 36 years. Pitt’s success is predicated on their 244.2 rushing yards-per-game, which ranks 19th in the FBS. Their 102nd passing attack is also improving. In the last two weeks, Panther quarterback Nate Peterman has completed 31 of 43 passes for 472 yards, 3 touchdowns, and no interceptions. Virginia provides an opportunity for Peterman to improve upon that success, ranking 126th in the nation with 309.6 passing yards allowed per game.
On special teams, it is interesting to note that the Cavaliers have only attempted a field goal in one game this season. Kicker Alex Furbank went 1 of 2 on field goal attempts against the Connecticut Huskies, converting from 23 yards, but missing from 20. Virginia has scored touchdowns in 15 out of 18 trips to the red zone, avoiding the need to utilize their kicker. However, uncertainty exists for the Cavs should Pitt prevent their entry into the red zone.
Below is the weekly statistical breakdown:
|Points Per Game||37.3||31.5||27.8||29.8|
|Points Off Turnovers||41||20||28||34|
|Yards Gained Rushing||1603||820||737||929|
|Yards Lost Rushing||138||230||138||119|
|Average Yards Per Rush||5.2||3.1||3.9||4.2|
|Average Yards Per Game||244.2||98.3||119.8||162.0|
|Average Yards Per Pass||8.0||9.0||7.2||8.2|
|Average Yards Per Catch||12.5||14.2||12.1||13.3|
|Average Yards Per Game||185.8||302.3||291.4||309.6|
|Average Yards Per Play||6.1||6.1||5.8||6.2|
|Average Yards Per Game||430.0||400.7||411.2||471.6|
|KICK RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||17-481||23-503||15-345||14-324|
|PUNT RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||7-67||13-138||10-63||5-25|
|INTERCEPTION – RETURN YARDS||3-33||2-11||7-33||6-74|
|KICK RETURN AVERAGE||28.3||21.9||23.0||23.1|
|PUNT RETURN AVERAGE||9.6||10.6||6.3||5.0|
|INTERCEPTION RETURN AVERAGE||11.0||5.5||4.7||12.3|
|FUMBLES – FUMBLES LOST||6-4||10-7||4-3||6-2|
|PENALTIES – YARDS||30-281||34-299||31-297||29-297|
|Average Per Game||46.8||49.8||59.4||59.4|
|PUNTS – YARDS||28-1178||30-1240||27-1220||22-811|
|Average Yards Per Punt||42.1||41.3||45.2||36.9|
|Net Yards Per Punt||36.4||38.4||41.3||34.0|
|KICKOFFS – YARDS||40-2533||35-2088||25-1552||29-1742|
|Average Yards Per Kick||63.3||59.7||62.1||60.1|
|Net Yards Per Kick||40.1||33.8||38.1||37.0|
|TIME OF POSSESSION PER GAME||34:34||25:26||27:15||32:45|
|4th Down Percentage||71%||62%||38%||50%|
|SACKS BY – YARDS||21-182||4-31||12-69||12-111|
|PAT’S MADE / ATTEMPTED||27/28||22/22||14/16||17/17|
Injuries are beginning to accumulate for both teams. Malcolm Cook, the Cavalier’s expected starter at outside linebacker heading into the season, is out for the year. Cornerback Tim Harris, defensive end Christian Brooks, and offensive guard Sean Karl are all also out for the season. The aforementioned Andrew Brown exited the Duke game with a shoulder injury and is listed as questionable. Linebacker Eric Gallon, cornerback Darious Latimore, and cornerback Myles Robinson join Brown on the “questionable” list. Also, as previously discussed, Quin Blanding is far from 100% but has yet to miss game time this season.
For Pitt, Dewayne Hendrix, Elijah Zeise, and Dontez Ford remain out. Mike Caprera is listed as questionable, while Zach Challingsworth and Avonte Maddox are doubtful.
This weekend’s matchup will be aired at 12:30 pm on WTAE and the ACC Network, and can be heard on 93.7 The Fan. Pittsburgh Sports Now will be hosting its third Watch Party of the year at Cupka’s Café 2 in the Southside. As always, PSN’s staff will provide updates and in-game observations via Twitter.
The last two meetings between Pitt and UVA have been decided by 7 points or less, and this game is expected to be no different. If so, Panther fans may discover a new appreciation for the emotional recovery offered by a bye-week next weekend.