When the Virginia football team welcomes Pittsburgh to Charlottesville this weekend, fans of both teams probably should steel their nerves. Maybe TheSabre.com panel should too as they make their picks this week.
The Cavaliers and Panthers, after all, enter Saturday as teams familiar with close contests. UVA’s last three games have either been tied or within one touchdown in the fourth quarter. The Hoos won two straight before entering their bye week. Pitt, meanwhile at 4-2, owns a pair of 3-point wins and two losses by a combined 8 points, which included a 37-36 heartbreaker to North Carolina. Even the Panthers’ 43-27 victory against Marshall stood as a 3-point margin with 4:00 to go.
In addition to a potentially close game on the scoreboard, this one might feature a lot of points too. Virginia’s defense allowed 29.8 points (85th nationally) in its first five games, while Pittsburgh’s defense gave up 31.5 (tied 91st nationally) in its six games to date. Both teams scored at least 27 points in each of the Panthers’ FBS games this season, while both teams have scored at least 20 points in all but one UVA contest this season.
Put a little more simply: Shootout!
With all signs pointing to a back-and-forth, high-scoring affair – similar to last season’s Homecomings game with Syracuse in that sense – the winning team likely will need touchdowns to win. That makes something like red zone touchdown percentage important.
Virginia enters this game tied for 3rd nationally by scoring touchdowns on 83.33% of its red zone possessions (15 of 18). Pittsburgh carries a stout stat there too at 77.78% (21 of 27), which leaves it tied for 13th nationally. UVA’s advantage is a bit more pronounced on the other side of the ball. The Hoos’ defense sits in a tie for 72nd nationally at 63.16% (12 of 19) for touchdowns allowed in the red zone. The Panthers rank 123rd at 78.95% (15 of 19) in the category.
The team that converts drives into touchdowns should hold an advantage Saturday with explosive plays and turnovers carrying a lot of weight as well. What does that mean for the picks? Let’s find out!
Virginia can win if … the passing game keeps clicking. In its two wins before the bye week, UVA threw up 421 and 336 yards passing, respectively. That included 8 touchdown passes for Kurt Benkert as well. With a Pittsburgh defense in town that has allowed 302.3 passing yards per game (124th out of 128 FBS teams) and 11 passing touchdowns (tied for 94th), there will be opportunities for plays through the air Saturday. The O-Line must hold up to take advantage of those chances, however, since Pitt also averages 3.5 sacks per game (tied for 6th nationally).
Virginia can lose if … it can’t stop the run. For Pittsburgh, the whole game plan starts with winning in the trenches and running the football. The Panthers enter Saturday ranked 19th nationally at 244.17 rushing yards per game with 17 touchdowns. That allows them to control the ball (11th nationally in time of possession) and sets up play-action passing opportunities over the top of the defense. UVA could put a lot of pressure on Pitt by stopping the run and getting a lead on the scoreboard.
And the winner is …
Sabre Editor Kris Wright: Virginia continues to be a little bit of an ‘all or nothing’ team on offense, scoring touchdowns on good drives but stalling out quickly on the others. That can be a little bit of a problem in a game that feels like a potential shootout. Still, Pitt’s pass defense can have breakdowns and the Panthers are preparing for a dramatically different style this week after squeaking past triple option Georgia Tech last week. Those things make me think the Hoos will be able to score some points. Add in a couple of stops and that’s enough to win. VIRGINIA 36, PITT 33. Season to date: 3-2.
Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne: Pittsburgh’s defense is ranked No. 10 among FBS schools against the run and is tied for 11th in the nation in sacks with 21. However, it also allows 302 yards per game through the air (including 14 yards per completion), good news for a Virginia squad that has flourished through the air in each of its past two games. Virginia should be able to score some points. My question is on defense where a physical Pitt running game could be tough for a thin Virginia defensive front to slow down for an entire game. The kicking game also worries me. Pitt has an experienced kicker in Chris Blewitt, who has had a good season and just booted a game-winner against Georgia Tech. Virginia’s placekicking situation remains a giant question mark. Virginia absolutely can win this game and should be raring to go coming off a bye. I think the kicking game plays a big role here, though, and the Panthers edge out the Hoos. PITT 30, VIRGINIA 27. Season to date: 3-2.
Sabre analyst Greg Waters: The Panthers will give the UVA defense all it can handle after scoring 36 points or more over their last five games. Despite some balanced yardage numbers, the Panthers are a run first team with a 282/140 run/pass ratio. That includes 145/40 on first down. Pitt has averaged more than 4.6 yards per carry rushing in 10 of its last 11 games and 5.11 in the last five outings. As good as the offense is, however, the defense is equally bad. The Panthers have given up 34 or more points in four of their last five contests. It will be very interesting to see how the Cavalier passing offense does against a Pitt team than has been anything but stout on pass defense this season. The Panthers have given up 8.8 yards per attempt and a 11/3 TD/INT ratio. I’m calling for a shootout too as the Hoos improve to 3-3. VIRGINIA 38, PITT 34. Season to date: 2-3.
Sabre analyst Ahmad Hawkins (listen to The Ball Hawk Show podcast here): Virginia will stack the box and dare Pitt to throw the football. Pittsburgh has averaged 244 yards a game on the ground and less than 200 yards through the air so it will be important for the Cavs to control the line of scrimmage. On offense, the Cavaliers will implement a balanced attack that will generate explosive plays for the playmakers. The Hoos will capitalize on extra possessions generated by the defense and hold off a late push by the Panthers. VIRGINIA 34, PITT 31. Season to date: 1-4.
Sabre meteorologist BadgerHoo: A perfect fall Saturday for football. It’s on the crisp side for pregame tailgating so have an extra layer but should be pretty comfortable during the game with temps 60-65. VIRGINIA 28, PITT 24. Season to date: 2-3.
How about you? Who wins?