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Game Preview

Game 9 Preview: Scouting Virginia



WHEN: 12:30 P.M. EST


Following Pitt’s victory over Duke last week, athletic director Heather Lyke asserted that the Panthers are still playing for a bowl game. Needing wins in three of their last four games to achieve bowl eligibility, and with two of those games against teams currently ranked in the top-15, reaching a bowl in Lyke’s first year at Pitt will be no easy task. With little room for error, the Panthers play host to another team playing for bowl eligibility this weekend, the Virginia Cavaliers.

In their second year under former BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall, the Cavaliers are close to earning their first bowl since the 2011/12 season. Virginia headed into last week fielding an impressive 5-1 record before being handled by Boston College at home, 41-10. During his Monday press conference, Coach Mendenhall noted that the team’s newfound success may have contributed to the Cavaliers’ poor performance.

“One thing that I did see that contributed in hindsight, and now just to speak openly about it, is the anticipated outcome of none of these players had been to a bowl game before, and the rumblings were – I never addressed it and took it head-on because my intent is just to keep us right here, but I started to hear and feel and whisper, hear some whisperings around the edges as to this is what’s going to happen and what’s that going to be like,” he said. “That took a little bit, I think, of the focus off of exactly what this needs to be.”

UVA needs one more win to achieve bowl eligibility. With Georgia Tech, Louisville, Miami and Virginia Tech serving as their final four opponents, the 3-5 Panthers may be their best chance at win number six.

On offense, the Wahoos list thirteen starters on their depth chart, leaving an exact starting eleven unclear. Their 385.1 yards-per-game ranks 82nd in the FBS, mostly due to an underwhelming rushing attack averaging 123.4 yards-per-game (108th). Relying on their passing game Saturday may be more difficult than usual, though, with expected at gametime.

Behind center is Kurt Benkert, a former East Carolina Pirate in his second season as the Cavaliers’ starter. The 6-foot-4-inch, 215-pound senior has completed 175-of-281 passes for 1,806 yards, 15 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. During last week’s loss to Boston College, Benkert was pulled after taking 3 sacks and numerous other hits, including one that knocked his helmet off (Mendhenhall blew his freshman quarterback’s redshirt on that play, so Pat Narduzzi is not the only head coach to make such a decision). According to Mendenhall, the choice to bench Benkert was a preventative measure intended to maintain the quarterback’s health, and he appears ready to go this weekend.

Benkert’s top target is UVA’s version of Quadree Henderson, junior Olamide Zaccheaus. The 5-foot-8-inch, 190-pound receiver has 49 receptions for 505 yards and 4 touchdowns. Zaccheaus is also second on the team in rushing yards, turning 16 carries into 142 yards and 1 touchdown.

Second to Zaccheaus in the pecking order is Doni Dowling, a senior receiver who has 30 receptions for 393 and 4 touchdowns. Also, with 4 touchdowns of his own and an average of 24.1 yards-per-catch, 6-foot-3-inch senior Andre Levrone is another receiver capable of making plays.

UVA’s top two running backs graduated after last season, leaving the Hoos with a question mark at the position entering 2017. Junior Jordan Ellis has emerged as a suitable primary back, though, alleviating some of the concern. Ellis, a 5-foot-10-inch, 215-pound junior, has 142 carries for 602 yards and 5 touchdowns. However, no other running backs have emerged as productive contributors outside of Ellis, leaving depth as an issue at the position.

On the other side of the ball, the Cavaliers’ defense is adapting to Mendenhall’s 3-4 defense well in year two. When the two teams met last season, UVA’s defense was ranked 111th in total defense as they transitioned to the 3-4. A year later, they are allowing 334.4 total yards-per-game, good for 27th in the FBS. Despite boasting some impressive and highly productive tacklers, the Cavaliers’ defense performs better against the run than they do the pass; their 184.9 passing yards allowed-per-game ranks 24th in the FBS.

The Wahoos’ three-man front is led by former 5-star recruit, Andrew Brown. Although his statistics are unspectacular (18 tackles, 4.0 tackles-for-loss and 1 sack), Coach Mendenhall made it a point to illuminate the development and versatility of his 6-foot-4-inch, 285-pound senior end on Monday.

“He’s gone from a player that hasn’t played much, and that was prior to myself and my staff arriving, to learning how to play pass defense in terms of pass rushing, and that’s really what he only wanted to do a year ago and really all he could be trusted to do, to now he’s becoming not only an every-down player, but he’s becoming an every-down player and then a nickel pass rusher, and then playing a position for us that we played Bronson Kaufusi, which required some coverage, as well. That development, it might not sound like much, but that development in that amount of time is not only average or good, it’s pretty remarkable.”

In the middle of the defense is the first of UVA’s two tackling machines, middle linebacker Micah Kiser. A 2016 first team All-ACC selection, Kiser’s 10.3 tackles-per-game are second in the ACC and tied for 9th in the FBS. His 6.0 tackles-for-loss, 5.0 sacks and 1 fumble recovery reflect his overall impact on the game. The senior is expected to play on Sundays next season, as well. In their most recent draft rankings, rated Kiser as the top inside linebacker prospect in the 2018 NFL draft, and the 30th player overall.

Kiser is joined by sophomore inside linebacker Jordan Mack in the middle. Mack’s 58 total tackles are third on the team and would look much more impressive if not for the other prolific tacklers on UVA’s defense.

At outside linebacker, Chris Peace is the Wahoo pass-rusher to watch. The junior Will linebacker has 38 tackles, 7.0 tackles-for-loss and 4.5 sacks on the season.

Roaming the field behind the linebackers is one of the few players in the FBS who can out-tackle Micah Kiser, 2016 first-team All-ACC free safety Quin Blanding. Blanding, the ACC’s leader in tackles-per-game (10.6), has legitimate NFL aspirations thanks to his ability to run down ball carriers; Chad Reuter of recently named Blanding as one of 15 seniors he believes may be selected in the first-round of the 2018 NFL draft. Barring an unforeseen drop in production, Saturday will be a special day for Blanding, too. With four tackles, Blanding will pass Jamie Sharper as UVA’s all-time leader in career tackles.

Outside of Blanding, there has been some shuffling in the secondary due to injury. Covering Pitt’s receivers will be sophomore cornerback Bryce Hall and (maybe) junior Juan Thornhill. Thornhill began the season as the team’s starting Sabre safety, but moved to Field corner after starter Tim Harris was lost for the season on opening weekend. Although listed as the starter on their two-deep, Thornhill has been ruled “doubtful” this week.

Taking Thornhill’s place at Sabre safety is redshirt freshman Brenton Nelson, a former walk-on who earned a scholarship this summer. With three interceptions and 39 tackles in his first season, Nelson is taking advantage of his opportunity at early playing time.

The last player of note is versatile redshirt-freshman De’Vante Cross, a player who contributes on offense, defense and special teams. Due to injuries, Cross saw snaps at wide receiver, quarterback, cornerback and special teams in UVA’s loss to Boston College last week. When Thornhill went down, Cross took over for him at corner, and he may see a more focused utilization on Saturday if needed at corner. For fans of Pennsylvania high school football, Cross’ name may sound familiar; the then-AAAA all-state performer led Parkland High School to the 2015 P.I.A.A. finals, where they lost to a Pittsburgh Central Catholic team featuring current Panthers Damar Hamlin, Bricen Garner and Rashad Wheeler.


POINTS SCORED 187 237 183 161
Points Per Game 23.4 29.6 26.1 23.0
FIRST DOWNS 156 165 152 124
Rushing 67 70 58 48
Passing 83 84 80 64
Penalty 6 11 14 12
RUSHING YARDAGE 1132 1309 864 1095
Yards Gained Rushing 1374 1489 1026 1257
Yards Lost Rushing 242 180 162 162
Rushing Attempts 300 281 239 261
Average Yards Per Rush 3.8 4.7 3.6 4.2
Average Yards Per Game 141.5 163.6 123.4 156.4
Rushing Touchdowns 13 13 8 9
PASSING YARDAGE 1832 2163 1832 1294
Comp-Att-Int 165-265-5 141-244-7 177-291-6 122-206-9
Average Yards Per Game 229.0 270.4 261.7 184.9
Passing Touchdowns 8 16 15 9
TOTAL OFFENSE 2964 3472 2696 2389
Total Plays 565 525 530 467
Average Yards Per Play 5.2 6.6 5.1 5.1
Average Yards Per Game 370.5 434.0 385.1 341.3
KICK RETURNS – RETURN YARDS 26-493 17-341 16-392 21-561
PUNT RETURNS – RETURN YARDS 14-237 12-192 13-74 15-175
INTERCEPTION – RETURN YARDS 7-68 5-60 9-140 6-116
KICK RETURN AVERAGE 19.0 20.1 24.5 26.7
PUNT RETURN AVERAGE 16.9 16.0 5.7 11.7
FUMBLES – FUMBLES LOST 8-5 9-6 13-1 8-1
PENALTIES – YARDS 33-319 37-274 34-319 37-329
Average Per Game 39.9 34.3 45.6 47.0
PUNTS – YARDS 40-1780 38-1606 41-1764 41-1686
Net Yards Per Punt 38.2 36.0 36.8 37.4
TIME OF POSSESSION PER GAME 32:55 27:05 33:38 26:22
3rd-DOWN CONVERSIONS 41/118 44/107 54/119 32/101
3rd-Down Percentage 35% 41% 45% 32%
4th-Down CONVERSIONS 10/16 6/10 8/15 7/17
4th Down Percentage 63% 60% 53% 41%
SACKS BY – YARDS 11-87 22-177 16-121 14-84
FIELD GOALS/ATTEMPTS 8/14 6/10 5/6 5/6
RED-ZONE TOUCHDOWNS/ATTEMPTS 14/21 13/25 14/24 10/19




DiNucci, Ben 63 115 761 3 3 113.8
Benkert, Kurt 175 281 1806 15 4 131.0



Hall, Darrin 55 362 6.6 4 92
Ollison, Qadree 68 283 4.2 4 32
Whitehead, Jordan 20 147 7.4 1 35
Ellis, Jordan 142 602 4.2 5 25
Zaccheaus, Olamide 16 142 8.9 1 56
Hamm, Daniel 24 86 3.6 1 16



Weah, Jester 27 458 3 55
Araujo-Lopes, Rafael 36 443 1 28
Mathews, Aaron 15 180 0 20
Ffrench, Maurice 17 147 0 18
Zaccheaus, Olamide 49 505 4 81
Dowling, Doni 30 393 4 42
Levrone, Andre 16 386 4 73
Butts, Evan 19 166 1 18



Idowu, Oluwaseun 39 63 8.5 1 1 0 2.0
Brightwell, Saleem 27 48 4.0 1 0 0 0.0
Whitehead, Jordan 23 35 0.0 0 1 1 0.0
Zeise, Elijah 21 33 3.0 0 0 0 0.0
Hamlin, Damar 21 29 1.0 0 0 1 0.0
Jackson, Dane 25 28 2.0 0 0 2 1.0
Garner, Bricen 22 27 0.5 0 0 1 0.0
Blanding, Quin 36 74 1.5 0 0 1 0.0
Kiser, Micah 27 72 6.0 0 1 0 5.0
Mack, Jordan 20 58 3.0 0 0 0 0.5
Nelson, Brenton 21 39 1.5 0 0 3 0.0
Peace, Chris 18 38 7.0 2 0 1 4.5
Thornhill, Juan 26 34 1.0 0 0 2 0.0
Moore, Chris 15 28 2.0 0 0 1 0.0



On the injury front, starting cornerback Tim Harris was lost for the season, along with wide receiver Cole Blackman, wide receiver Warren Craft, wide receiver Ben Hogg, fullback Alec Shifflet, offensive lineman Gerrick Vollmer and cornerback Germane Crowell. As previously mentioned, starting cornerback Juan Thornhill is doubtful this week. And although this applies to most football teams at this point, Coach Mendenhall mentioned on Monday that he has a “number of players” that are limited during the week but still see the field come game time.

There are two changes to Pitt’s injury report from last week: cornerback Avonte Maddox is out with an upper extremity injury sustained last week and Keyshon Camp is listed as questionable.


Pitt versus UVA kicks off at 12:30 Saturday afternoon at Heinz Field. The game will be aired on AT&T Sportsnet Pittsburgh and can be heard on 93.7 the Fan. As always, Pittsburgh Sports Now and its staff will provide in-game updates and observations via Twitter.


Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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