Having just taken a 28-21 lead, the Virginia football team had reason to feel good with 5:57 remaining in the first half. By the time the Cavaliers headed into the locker room, however, Pittsburgh had captured momentum and a lead it never relinquished.
What happened in those six minutes provided a glimpse at UVA’s undoing on the day in a 45-31 loss to the Panthers.
Virginia followed up running back Albert Reid’s second rushing touchdown of the day with its second kickoff coverage lapse of the day, surrendering a 66-yard return to Rafael Araujo-Lopes. Pitt capitalized nine plays later on James Conner’s 1-yard touchdown run, which tied the game at 28.
Taking control from its own 32 with 40 seconds left, Virginia handed the ball to senior tailback Taquan Mizzell, who scampered 12 yards. The play emboldened head coach Bronco Mendenhall and offensive coordinator Robert Anae to go for more points instead of running the clock out.
Considering Virginia’s offense had scored four touchdowns already, the decision seemed sound. And then Pitt sophomore safety Jordan Whitehead cut in front of Keeon Johnson, intercepted Kurt Benkert’s pass, and raced 59 yards for a touchdown. Pitt led for the first time all game and took the 35-28 advantage into the locker room.
Those 14 points in the final minute of the first half along with Quadree Henderson’s 93-yard kickoff return for touchdown in the first half proved too much for UVA to overcome at Homecomings. Henderson, who now has three kickoff return touchdowns in his last eight games, also had a 29-yard punt return that set up a Chris Blewitt field goal in the fourth quarter.
“Difference today was special teams in my opinion,” Cavalier coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “Pitt’s returner is very, very good. We knew that going into the game and the returns that they ran were the same returns that we prepared for. So clearly their staff did a better job of executing and having their young men execute and coach them in those situations than we did. So that to me was the difference in the game in addition to the one mistake that Kurt makes right before the half with the pick-six.”
After the sudden thud to end the half, Virginia’s offense could not get back on track after intermission. The Hoos mustered only a Sam Hayward 36-yard field goal – the first of his career – in the final minutes.
In fact, the two halves contrasted each other dramatically. UVA scored touchdowns on 4 of its first 6 drives in the first half, but punted on its first 5 drives in the second. The Cavaliers posted 270 yards of offense en route to 28 points in the first half. They managed just 108 and 3 points in the second, which included 11 plays for a mere 15 yards in the third quarter.
“We are inconsistent,” Mizzell said. “The first half we had 28 points and the second half we had three. We need guys to make plays, it is as simple as that.”
Mizzell and Reid led the way for the Cavaliers on offense, accounting for 123 yards rushing and 3 touchdowns. Mizzell had 95 of those yards, 44 of which came on a first quarter touchdown run that gave Virginia a 14-7 lead. He added three receptions for 15 yards.
Benkert passed for 278 yards with 1 touchdown and the interception. He had a strong first quarter, connecting on 9 of 15 passes for 146 yards and a 74-yard touchdown pass to Olamide Zaccheaus. In the final three quarters, however, Benkert completed only 11 of 30 passes for 132 yards and an interception.
Part of the Virginia quarterback’s second half struggles could be attributed to increased pressure from the Pitt defense, which amassed all four sacks in the second half. It is a defense that averaged over three sacks per game heading into the contest.
“They didn’t do anything different than what we expected in the second half,” Benkert said. “They just put on a lot more pressure so I didn’t have as much time to sit back there and take shots down the field. They did exactly what we thought they would do in the first half and made some adjustments in the second half.”
The defense held Pitt to 346 yards of total offense and a scoreless third quarter, but the Cavaliers couldn’t keep that going in the fourth quarter. Quin Blanding led the defensive effort with 16 tackles, including 10 solo stops. Micah Kiser and Kelvin Rainey added 9 tackles each.
Getting consistent pressure on quarterback Nate Peterman proved difficult as the Hoos only sacked Pitt’s senior quarterback once. The lack of pressure enabled Peterman to connect on several key third downs, including a 38-yard touchdown pass to Jester Weah to tie the game 7-7 in the first quarter.
Conner spearheaded the Panthers’ rushing attack with 92 yards and 2 touchdowns. Pitt totaled 209 yards on the ground, averaging 4.3 yards per rush. That fell below the season averages, but when added with the kickoff returns and the pick-six, it was enough to get a road win.
“Obviously it is a great road win, and long overdue,” Panthers coach Pat Narduzzi said. “I challenged our guys to be road warriors, and to come here and finish the game off on the road against a good football team that has a lot of skill and is well coached. I am very proud of them.”
The loss drops UVA’s overall record to 2-4, including 1-2 at home and 1-1 in the ACC. The Cavaliers host another ACC rival next Saturday when UNC comes to Charlottesville. Game time is 3 p.m.