CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — In a game dominated by the offenses, it was a defensive player that made a mark, as Jordan Whitehead’s 59-yard interception return for a touchdown with four seconds left in the first half proved to the be difference-maker in the Panthers’ 45-31 victory over Virginia at Scott Stadium Saturday.
Pitt had already given up 270 yards of offense to the Cavaliers in the first half and after James Conner’s second touchdown of the day tied the game with 40 seconds to play in the half, Virginia was looking to add on.
But quarterback Kurt Benkert’s pass over the middle was behind his intended target, and Whitehead stepped in front of it. After big blocks down the right side of the field by linebackers Bam Bradley and Quintin Wirginis, Whitehead scored essentially untouched, giving Pitt the lead for the first time.
It was a first half dominated by big plays for both teams. Jester Weah scored on a 38-yard pass from Nate Peterman and Quadree Henderson returned a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter.
But the Pitt defense had trouble stopping the Cavaliers, who scored on three of their first four offensive possessions to build a 21-14 lead. Taquan Mizzell ran off right tackle for a 44-yard score and Olamide Zaccheaus took a Kurt Benkert pass 74 yards for a score.
The first Virginia touchdown, which was a five-yard carry by Albert Reid, was set up by a bizarre sequence for the Panthers defensively. Pitt appeared to have Virginia stopped for a 4th and 10, but an offside penalty in punt formation by Jay Stocker made int 4th and 5. Pitt attempted to make a wholesale substitution to put the regular defense on instead of the cover team, but were flagged for an illegal substitution, making 4th and less than a yard, which the Cavaliers were able to pick up on a two-yard rush.
The Cavaliers were uncharacteristically able to move the ball on the ground against the Panthers, as they gave up 100 or more yards on the ground for the third straight game.
Pitt’s passing defense again struggled with the long ball and they allowed 278 yards on 20 of 45 by Benkert, plus a pair of defensive pass interference penalties by Ryan Lewis and Phillipie Motley, who started in place of the injured Avonte Maddox.
Pitt also lost safety Terrish Webb, defensive end Ejuan Price and linebacker Bam Bradley to injuries in the game. Webb was injured on a rushing play in the first half and came out for the second half without his uniform. Price went off holding his back in the second half and remained on the sideline but did not return. Bradley went down late in the game.
But the defense tightened in the second half, allowing just 98 total yards on six drives, 57 of which came on the Cavaliers’ final offensive possession. They caused the Cavaliers to go three-and-out twice and punt five consecutive times.
Offensively, George Aston added on with a five-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter. The teams traded field goals late in the fourth.
Conner scored on a pair of short rushing touchdowns in the second quarter, the second of which was set up by a 69-yard kickoff return by Rafael Araujo-Lopes. Conner finished the day with 90 yards on 20 carries and caught two passes for 28 yards.
Conner also got in on defense, playing one snap at defensive end and pressuring the quarterback. Conner wasn’t the only Pitt player getting action on both sides of the ball, as Whitehead got three carries for 28 yards, including a 16-yard gain on the drive that led to Aston’s touchdown.