CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — During warm-ups before almost any football game, players are getting themselves fired up to participate in the upcoming contest.
They jump up and down, they yell, they scream, they hit one another, some of them listen to music, whatever it takes.
For Pitt games, I usually watch warm-ups from the sidelines, and so it’s a process I’m pretty familiar with.
Friday night at Scott Stadium, it was pretty obvious that the Panthers were a bit extra fired up to face the No. 23 Virginia Cavaliers.
Maybe it was the night game atmosphere, the knowledge that they were playing for first place in the ACC Coastal Division, or some other reason, but the Panthers were champing at the bit from the get go — so much so that the teams got into a minor skirmish on the field at the end of warm ups.
There’s nothing wrong with being fired up before a big game, but the only other time I can recall the Panthers be that excited pregame was for this year’s Penn State game at Heinz Field.
I’m sure I don’t need to remind you how that one played out. Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi even said after the game that his players might have been a bit too emotional going into that.
However, against Virginia, The Panthers were able to reign in that emotion and use it in a positive way.
The pregame emotional wasn’t the only stumbling block, either. After Pitt defensive end Patrick Jones was ejected for targeting at the end of the first half, the Panthers went into the locker room and came out just as composed as they had been the rest of the game.
Pitt has been plagued by penalties several times this season and even though personal finals by Jones and to Damarri Mathis that didn’t really play toward the outcome of the game increased Pitt’s penalty total to seven for 72 yards on the day, they were still the lesser penalized of the two teams.
The fact that Pitt was able to go into a big game situation and keep their heads cool is an important one, because the games won’t get any smaller for the Panthers going forward.
After a one-on-one battle for first place with Virginia, Pitt will be in exactly the same situation when they host Virginia Tech at Heinz Field next Saturday. Trips to Wake Forest and Miami will also undoubtedly be pressure-packed as the Panthers hope to keep pace in the Coastal Division.
It’s pretty clear that starting Pitt running back Qadree Ollison is not at 100 percent.
The Panthers’ primary rusher through the first eight games of the season, Ollison left last Saturday’s game against Duke late with what appeared to be a hamstring injury.
Against Virginia, he looked hesitant at times running on a slippery track and also came up limping after a punt cover play in the second half.
Narduzzi acknowledged the situation with a wink and a nod after the game. When asked if the plan coming into the game if he plan had been to go with Darren Hall more often, Narduzzi responded by saying that Hall had practiced well and that “Jerry isn’t here, so we won’t talk any more about that.”
By Jerry, Narduzzi was referring to Pittsburgh Tribune-Review writer Jerry DiPaola, who has frequent exchanges with Narduzzi about player injuries.
The meaning should be clear: Ollison is banged up. He had seven carries for 24 yards and a 3.4 yards-per-attempt average, all season lows.
For many teams, that could be a pretty big issue. Not for Pitt.
Hall stepped right in for an eye-popping 245 all-purpose yards, 229 of them on 19 carries for a 12.1 yard-per-carry average and three touchdowns.
It’s not exactly a secret around the team that Hall is a talented runner and every bit as talented as Ollison.
When he wasn’t getting an even share of the workload in the early part of the season, there were no complaints, just hard work and patience.
“He always has a smile on his face,” offensive lineman Connor Dintino said. “He has great leadership, Qadree has great leadership and they feed off each other. Not too many people can rely on two running backs like that. They feed off each other and they’re selfless. That’s what great teams have.”
Narduzzi teased last Monday that there may be some New faces and pits the lineup against the Cavaliers, and that was the case that is true freshman middle linebacker Wendell Davis and defense of tackle Devon Danielson both made their collegiate debuts against Virginia.
Davis played mostly on special teams, and forced a fumble on the opening kickoff that Virginia was able to recover. Danielson was a part of the regular rotation at defensive tackle, gaining extra repetitions in place of Keyshon Camp, who will miss the rest of the season with an upper-body injury.
Danielson was part of a unit that held Virginia to a total of 44 rushing yards, a week after being gashed through the air and an on the ground against Duke.
“We really played good the whole game,” Narduzzi said. “When you hold someone to 50 yards … they’ve run the ball pretty good on everybody. You look at the defense a week ago, and you look at the defense we put on the field today, the coaches worked hard all week, did a great job of putting them into position. That’s how you play Pitt defense.”
Freshman cornerback-turned-wide-receiver V’Lique Carter played somewhat sparingly in his second action of the season after a break-out performance against Duke.
He had two carries for five yards and was mostly used as a decoy. That is, after it was established who he was.
Carter had been worn 21 on Pitts roster all season before changing to 19 in between warm ups and the game last week against Duke. That move was a practical one, as running back AJ Davis also wears 21 and it was certainly possible that the two could’ve been on the field at the same time.
This week, Pitt changed Carter from 19 to 83 in between warm-ups in the game, and Narduzzi admitted that it was a ploy to attempt to fool the Cavaliers.
“His jersey ripped,” Narduzzi deadpanned. “No, I’m just kidding you. Just to sneak him out there. We tried to sneak him. It’s always tough if you can do that and the player doesn’t mind changing his number up, it at least throws them off a little bit. It didn’t do well, anyway. We knew they would take the jet sweeps away like they have the last couple years. That was probably going to be an issue, but we wanted to find out what could go, anyway.”
For college basketball teams, three-point range is clearly delineated on the court by arc that surrounds the basket.
For a football team, deciphering three-point range can be a bit more complicated.
It’s different for every kicker, and even for the same kicker, it changes from day to day and game to game based on the temperature, the field conditions, the wind and sometimes, the direction of the field they’re kicking into.
Friday, Pitt kicker Alex Kessman didn’t have pristine conditions in warmups, with a swirling wind, an at-times heavy rain and a soaked field. He didn’t hit all of his warm-up attempts, even at short range, let alone from long range.
By the time Pitt needed him to attempt a 53-yard field goal to go up by two scores late in the game, the conditions had improved considerably, and Narduzzi had no second thoughts about sending out his kicker, who cleared the bar with a few yards to spare.
“Obviously, we’d like to be a little bit closer,” Narduzzi said. “52 or 53 yards. We had no reservation at all. … That was a gigantic kick.”