CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — The Panthers got their first road win of the year by knocking off Virginia, 45-31 on Saturday, and preserved their chances of a Coastal Division title. The win over the Cavaliers sets up a crucial game at Heinz Field a week from Thursday, when Virginia Tech comes to town following Pitt’s idle week.
Here’s my five takeaways from Pitt’s performance.
INJURY WOES MOUNT
The bye week could’t come at a better time for the Panthers, especially on defense, as injuries continued to accumulate in Charlottesville.
The team is already playing without defensive end Dewayne Hendrix (foot) and linebacker Elijah Zeise (ankle), who are both out long-term. Cornerback Avonte Maddox seems to be, as well. He made the trip to Virginia but did not dress and was seen with his arm in a sling.
Outside linebacker Mike Caprara (lower body) also traveled and he did dress, but did not play for the second consecutive game. Caprara hasn’t played since the first half of the Maarshall game and hasn’t started and finished a game since Penn State in Week 2.
Pitt then lost three more players against the Cavaliers: defensive end Ejuan Price, free safety Terrish Webb and linebacker Bam Bradley.
Webb went down in the first half and Reggie Mitchell stepped in at free safety, giving Pitt a brand-new field side of the secondary with Phillipie Motley filling in for Maddox.
“It was nice to see some guys come out there and make plays. We had some new guys on the field,” said head coach Pat Narduzzi. “Phillipie Motley — I thought he had a great game. We made plays and I was happy with that.”
When Maddox was injured last week against Georgia Tech, redshirt freshman Dane Jackson filled in. But after a week of practice, Narduzzi and the coaching staff decided to go with Motley.
“We practice and find out who’s then guy,” Narduzzi said. “Dane had a decent week, as well. It was a tough call. It was a split call on Wednesday. I was in the staff meeting and it was half and half. They both had a good week of practice. We gave the nod to Phillipie and he played like it.”
At safety, Webb had been beaten for a big play in the first quarter, and Narduzzi was extremely complimentary of the work of Mitchell. Two weeks ago, he filled in for Jordan Whitehead and played well at the strong safety spot. This week, it was more of the same at free safety.
“He played good. He did like he’s done every time he’s had that opportunity, whether he’s come in in relief in the middle of the series just to give a guy a blow or coming into start a couple weeks ago and then he takes over in the second half. He did a great job. He played like we thought he would. Like [I’ve said] all along, he’s a starter and we treat him like one.”
Price is the nation’s leader in sacks with nine and the most dynamic player on Pitt’s defense this season, but he went out with a back injury in the second half and did not return. Price was replaced by James Folston and Allen Edwards. Rori Blair was credited with two sacks.
“I’m happy for the guys that stepped up,” said nose tackle Tyrique Jarrett. “We needed them. The depth at defensive end is very good. … Those guys stepped up. We held it down today.”
Bradley was injured on the Panthers’ final defensive series. He had been filling in for Caprara. After the game, he Tweeted that he was “thankful.”
— Bam Bradley4⃣ (@Bdbam4_) October 15, 2016
On the whole, Narduzzi was extremely satisfied with the way his defense battled through the multitude of injuries.
“It says a lot,” he said. “We’ve learned. You have to live and learn from your mistakes that you’ve done in the past. I think we really paid attention to details in the second half and were able to finish the game. … It’s impressive.”
But he acknowledged that it is definitely a good time for the bye week.
“It’s perfect timing,” he said. “I wish it was two weeks instead of a week and a half, but we’ll take full advantage of it. Our trainers and doctors will do a great job with our kids and we’ll come back fresh.”
Missing up to seven players, Pitt’s defense may have its most complete half of football the final 30 minutes against Virginia. Hanging on to a one-score lead at the half, Pitt forced five straight punts and held the Cavaliers to 27 yards on 22 plays.
It was a stark difference from the first half, when the Panthers allowed 270 yards of offense and 28 points. In the second half, it was nothing but a garbage-time field goal.
“The difference is playing with fundamentals,” Narduzzi said. “It’s details. It’s little stuff. When you’re going to play good defense, you have to pay attention to details.”
Narduzzi specifically mentioned miscues on big plays by the Virginia offense in the first half that got corrected in the second half. Jordan Whitehead, who made the biggest play of the game with his interception return for a touchdown right before the half, thought the team did a better job this week of making halftime adjustments.
“[Defensive coordinator Josh] Conklin said before the game, ‘The first couple series, just see and get a feel for what they do,’” Whitehead recalled. “When he came in [at halftime], we had a feel and he came in and threw up their concepts. I think we had a better feel. We talked about finishing all week.”
SPECIAL TEAMS UP & DOWN
Pitt got a few big plays on special teams when Quadree Henderson scored a 93-yard touchdown on a kickoff return and Rafael Araujo-Lopes set up another score with a 69-yard return.
Henderson knew from the first time he touched the ball it was going to be a big day for the unit.
“The first one, we called a certain return,” he said. “When I made my first cut, a saw a whole bunch of field and tried to cut back, but one of the players tackled me already. When I came to the sideline, my exact words to [special teams] coach [Andre] Powell were: “Coach Powell, we’re going to get one. It just so happened that the next one they kicked to me, my one blocker hit the guy that tackled me the first time.”
But it wasn’t all positive for the third phase, as a pair of penalties in punt coverage allowed Virginia to extend a drive in the first quarter and eventually score a touchdown. The second flag was for an illegal substitution, as Pitt didn’t get all 11 players off the field while changing coverage units.
“I blame myself,” Narduzzi said. “It’s 4th and 10 and we jump offsides. I want to get safe, I want to get our defense back on the field for 4th and 5 if they tried a fake — especially because the ball is at midfield. I didn’t get them out there quick enough. I’ll take the blame for that. We didn’t sprint off the field as fast [as we needed to]. I can’t take the blame for not sprinting off the field as fast. We should be able to get that substitution in. I take the blame because we didn’t practice that. I have to make sure we practice every little thing. We will practice that maybe five or six times this week.”
Nate Peterman finished 11 of 21 for 137 yards and two touchdowns. It was an up-and-down performance from Peterman. He was able to find Jester Weah for a big, 38-yard touchdown in the first quarter, but then later missed Weah on a flea-flicker later in the game.
“I’ll try to recognize that next time,” Peterman said. “I should be looking for that, to be honest. The second time we ran it, I was looking for that and they covered it pretty well. I’d like to hit that, obviously. Those are lost points that I feel like I could have done a better job with.”
Several of his passes to open receivers were off the mark throughout the day. He wasn’t helped by the running game in the first half and was in more 3rd and long situations than the Panthers are accustomed to.
“He missed a couple throws, but every quarterback in the country does,” Narduzzi said. “In the run game and some of the little things we ask him to do on his reads — I’m listening in on the headphones — he made some good calls out there today.”
Here’s Whitehead’s reaction to his big interception and touchdown:
Whitehead also played a good bit on offense, getting three carries for 28 yards. He was a decoy on George Aston’s fourth-quarter touchdown.
“The first time he came in, he got whacked and we stayed away from him a little bit,” Narduzzi said. “The next time he came in, he was a decoy. Then he came in the second half and our defense wasn’t on the field a whole lot, so we said, ‘Hey, put number nine in the game and see what he’s got.’ He made some plays.”
“He’s just coming in to make plays,” Peterman said. “Sometimes, he doesn’t get the ball and he makes great fakes, and when he gets the ball, he’s running hard. He makes guys miss.”
On the other side of the ball, running back James Conner got a few snaps at defensive end and pressured the quarterback on one play.
“We’ve been working that in. As you know, he was recruited as a defensive lineman,” Narduzzi said. ”We’re always going to play our best football players. It was a different package where we really put Dennis Briggs to the field at the ‘Star’ linebacker spot, put [Seun Idowu] at the money and still had our four-man front.
“It was just another sub personnel grouping to put a little speed in at defensive end just to keep our guys fresh. We have enough tailbacks in there. We’ll play Jordan on offense and defense and we’ll pay James on offense and defense.”