Pitt has a four-game winning streak against the University of Virginia Cavaliers, but despite that – and the fact that the Panthers are opening at home – many odds-makers are tabbing the Panthers as 2.5-point underdogs when the ‘Hoos come to town this Saturday for a contest televised by the brand-new ACC Network.
And while the Panthers are the reigning champs of the ACC’s Coastal Division, many – from Mark Richt to Athlon Sports to the ACC media members – are picking Virginia to take that crown this year. A different team has won the Coastal in each of the past six years.
The season opener for Pitt and Virginia could be an indicator on how the season is going to play out for both teams. Should Pitt pull off a win, it could be a sign that Pat Narduzzi’s boys are going to be better than many thought. If Virginia rolls to a victory, folks could start penciling them in as the team to face Clemson in Charlotte in December.
“Really unique challenge. We have a great opportunity and a formidable challenge in our opener,” Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall said at the ACC Kickoff event in July. “We haven’t beaten them yet. It’s a significant challenge.”
The fourth-year ‘Hoos head coach added at his press conference this week: “Pitt has been the more physical team in the previous three years, especially in the trenches on both sides… Pitt’s offense and defensive front have controlled the game in each of the past three match-ups, so there is a physical component, but then certainly an intensity that has to be played with from the beginning to end.”
There’s been a lot of talk about Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins this off-season, and rightfully so as he scored 34 touchdowns in 2018, the most by a single player in the ACC.
But the ‘Hoos real strength is in their defense. A season ago, Virginia was third in the ACC and 31st in the nation, per SP+, in team defense. They were 47th in rushing defense, allowing 147.5 yards on the ground per-game, and 16th in pass defense, allowing 183 yards through the air per-game. Virginia also allowed just a 52.5 completion percentage on all passes from opponents, which was seventh best in the FBS.
Virginia also allowed offenses to run just 62.7 plays per-game last season, which was fifth best among Power 5 defenses. The ‘Hoos forced offenses off the field quickly.
Anchoring that defense is Bryce Hall, arguably the best cornerback in the conference and a near-lock to be a first round NFL Draft Pick next spring. He’s among the eight starters Virginia returns on defense.
“Defensively Bryce Hall at corner, a Pennsylvania native who is a super kid, got a chance to talk with him down at the ACC Media Day, just a tremendous kid,” Narduzzi said at his press conference earlier this week. “Obviously a big, big dude. Really good corner for them… We’re going to run our offense as is. Can’t eliminate the right side of the field for the offense. We played other good corners.”
Former Boston College quarterback turned ESPN and ACC Network analyst Tim Hasselbeck said on a conference call earlier this week that Pitt’s ability to decipher Virginia’s defense will be the deciding component of the game. He has the call for the ACC Network on Saturday, joining Adam Amin and Katie George on the broadcast.
“Probably the bigger determining factor in my opinion is that UVA’s got a very good defense. I think that they’re really talented on that side of the ball,” Hasselbeck said. “I think that if it’s going to be a game, then Pittsburgh’s really going to have to play well offensively and be able to kind of stack up against a really talented group on the other side of the ball.”
New faces for the ‘Hoos
A player that Virginia has placed a lot of hope in is true freshman nose tackle Jowon Briggs, who won the starting job out of camp. Briggs was a four-star recruit out of Cincinnati, Ohio, ranked as the 10th best defensive tackle in the nation. He opted to sign with the ‘Hoos over Alabama, Michigan and Notre Dame, among other offers.
According to the Daily Progress, the 6-foot-2, 295-pound wrecking ball is the highest-rated recruit Mendenhall has landed for Virginia. He also has the potential to play defensive end in certain schemes.
“He’s strong, he’s quick, he’s grounded, he’s assignment sound and he’s an unselfish player,” Mendenhall told the Daily Progress. “Did I say he’s big and strong?”
Freshman linebacker Nick Jackson also made the two-deep depth chart for the Cavaliers. Opposite Hall at corner will be a first-time starter in Nick Grant, a junior. He’s played in 24 games and made six tackles so far in his career at Virginia.
“Nick is a relentless worker [who] just simply wouldn’t relinquish the spot,” Mendenhall told the Roanoke Times. “He’s the most consistent worker currently on our team and he’s made the most plays at corner.”
On special teams, Nash Griffin takes over at punter after the graduation of Lester Coleman. If he struggles, kicker Brian Delaney could take over. True freshman Enzo Anthony will start at long snapper.
On offense, true freshmen Ja’Quay Hubbard (guard), Dorien Goddard (wide receiver) and Mike Hollins (running back) made the two-deep depth chart. Sophomore Wayne Taulapapa won the starting running back job in camp. He’ll succeed 1,000-yard rusher Jordan Ellis, who graduated.
“Wayne is the most trustworthy and the most versatile to this point and has had the most production,” Mendenhall told the Roanoke Times.
Taulapapa did not have a rushing attempt last year, but played in eight games and recorded a special teams tackle.
Perkins and the offense
Pitt’s defense likely won’t be too worried about Taulapapa, instead, focusing most of their attention on Virginia’s shifty play-making quarterback, Bryce Perkins.
A season ago, fresh off a season of junior college ball, Perkins completed 64.5 percent of his passes for 2,680 yards and 25 touchdowns while throwing nine interceptions. On the ground, he rushed for 923 yards and nine touchdowns, averaging 4.4 yards per-carry.
Against Pitt last year, Perkins struggled some against the Panthers’ defense. There was no room for him to run, as he ended up with negative-seven rushing yards on 15 attempts, and passed for 205 yards and just one touchdown on 24 passes.
“Obviously on offense, Bryce Perkins is the guy. He’s the guy you got to stop,” Narduzzi said this week. “We got him down on the ground, that was key. One way or another we got him down on the ground. Tackling the quarterback is going to be critical this week for our D-line and linebackers for that matter. He has got designated runs. They’ll run quarterback outside the zone with him, they’ll spread out and he’ll take off running. They do quite a bit with Bryce.”
Virginia left room for improvement on offense last year. They were 84th in the FBS in total offense, covering 384.5 yards per-game. They turned the ball over 1.5 times per-game, which ranked 62nd in the nation. The ‘Hoos were middle of the pack in most other offensive team stats, but did score two passing touchdowns per-game, which was 36th in the country.
Ultimately, the outcomes of many of Virginia’s games this season will be decided by the play of Perkins. The ‘Hoos offense – and championship hopes – will go as far as he takes them.
“The command of the offense certainly appears to be at a higher level. Ultimately though, we all know it’s a results-oriented business, and great quarterbacks win championships,” Mendenhall told 247sports. “Hopefully Bryce has advanced to that part and that point, and we won’t know until we play.”