THE MATCHUP: PITT (3-5) VS VIRGINIA (5-2)
WHEN: 12:30 P.M. EST
WHERE: HEINZ FIELD, PITTSBURGH, PA
HOW TO WATCH: AT&T SPORTSNET PITTSBURGH
HOW TO LISTEN: 93.7 THE FAN & THE PITT IMG SPORTS NETWORK
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, CBSSports.com 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 NFL.com 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 Per Game||23.4||29.6||26.1||23.0|
|Yards Gained Rushing||1374||1489||1026||1257|
|Yards Lost Rushing||242||180||162||162|
|Average Yards Per Rush||3.8||4.7||3.6||4.2|
|Average Yards Per Game||141.5||163.6||123.4||156.4|
|Average Yards Per Game||229.0||270.4||261.7||184.9|
|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|
|INTERCEPTION RETURN AVERAGE||9.7||12.0||15.6||19.3|
|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|
|4th Down Percentage||63%||60%||53%||41%|
|SACKS BY – YARDS||11-87||22-177||16-121||14-84|
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.
HOW/WHERE TO WATCH
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.