Three-List Game Preview: Virginia Football Opens The 2019 Season At Pittsburgh

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Pittsburgh’s defense has been able to slow the Virginia offense for the last 10 quarters, holding the Hoos to just 30 points total in that span. Quarterback Bryce Perkins and company are looking to change that trend on Saturday at Heinz Field. ~ Photo courtesy of Matt Riley/Virginia Athletics Media Relations

The University of Virginia football program is the media’s preseason favorite to win the 2019 Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division title, so what better test is there than to open the season on the road against the 2018 Coastal Division champion Pittsburgh Panthers in the ACC Network’s featured primetime matchup on Saturday, August 31.

Virginia, which has increased its win total in each of Bronco Mendenhall’s first three seasons and experienced postseason success for the first time since 2005 with a 2018 Belk Bowl title, is looking to take another step forward on the field. Beating Pitt and winning consistently on the road are two things the Cavaliers have not accomplished under the former BYU head man.

In four seasons as Pitt football head coach, Pat Narduzzi has led the Panthers to four consecutive wins – the last three coming in the Mendenhall era – over the Cavaliers. Most recently, the Panthers dropped UVA, 23-13, in a key Coastal Division matchup in Charlottesville last November. Pitt went on to capture the Coastal before falling to Clemson in the ACC Championship game,

Virginia’s struggles in Pittsburgh go beyond the Narduzzi era, as the Hoos have never beaten Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh in five tries. The last time the two teams met in Pittsburgh was 2017, when the Panthers won, 31-14. A win on Saturday would snap UVA’s losing streaks to Pittsburgh and perhaps boost the team’s road confidence moving forward. The Cavaliers have achieved only have four true road wins the past three seasons and were only 1-4 on the road last year.

Star quarterback Bryce Perkins, who last season was one of only two players – Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray being the other – in all of Division 1 football to rush for over 900 yards and pass for over 2,600 yards, is back as the Hoos’ starting quarterback. Pittsburgh’s defense held the dynamic Perkins in check last season, but this year the Panthers lack significant starting experience on the defensive line, perhaps opening things up for the senior captain and the Cavalier rushing game. Wide receiver Joe Reed and Hasise Dubois highlight the returning offensive playmakers for UVA, which must replace 1,000-yard rusher Jordan Ellis and top receiver Olamide Zaccheaus. Virginia will have a running back by committee approach to start the season, as no player grabbed a firm hold of the tailback position in fall camp.

UVA’s defense, a top 25 unit nationally last season, should be formidable once again. All-American cornerback Bryce Hall leads the way in the secondary, which lost safety Juan Thornhill from last year’s unit. The Cavalier front seven is reason to be very excited about this year’s defense, as Coach Mendenhall finally has quality depth on the defensive line to go along with fast, rangy, playmaking linebackers led by Jordan Mack, Pennsylvania native Zane Zandier, and Charles Snowden.

The Cavalier defense will be challenged by a Pittsburgh offense that features a new offensive coordinator in Mark Whipple, who hopes to produce a dynamic “pro-style” passing game with junior quarterback Kenny Pickett leading the way. Pitt is going away, at least somewhat, from last season’s rugged rushing attack that featured big, strong NFL rookies in Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall. A pair of high school Under Armour All-Americans (junior A.J. Davis and sophomore Todd Sibley Jr.) will probably get most of the work at running back, while dynamic Maurice Ffrench may be Pitt’s biggest weapon at receiver. Known for having a big, physical offensive line, the Panthers break in four new starters on the line this season.

What the new Pitt offense will look like exactly under Whipple is a question Bronco Mendenhall won’t have the answer for until game time. From week to week, the Panthers Panthers may not know.

“So this will be I think the third offensive coordinator we’ve faced against Pitt,” Mendenhall said. “I never can speak for or speculate accurately what’s going on in another coach’s program, so I’m not sure what we’ll see. What I do know is the offensive coordinator in Whipple that’s coming in, they are certainly capable of points. The system he’s run in the past is explosive and very difficult to stop. How much of that now is tilted toward Pitt’s past identity of running the football and how much that’s emphasized, we can only speculate. We have to prepare for it all. So their ability to run the ball, we have to be prepared for that. We’ll have to be prepared for all the other things that their coach has done in the past if given the free reign for him to do that. So we don’t know.”

What we do know is that this year there are serious conference implications in the season opener.
If a close game comes down to special teams, both teams have reason to feel good. Brian Delaney established himself as UVA’s starting placekicker last season, making 12-of-16 field goals in the final eight games of 2018. Pitt’s Alex Kessman has booted six field goals of over 50 yards the past two seasons, including a 53-yarder against UVA last year.

The ACC Coastal Division has had six different champions from 2013-2018 – all except for Virginia has won the division in that span. The Cavaliers, who entered November last season in control of its destiny in the Coastal Division, are looking to be the latest winner, and a road victory over Pitt would be a great way to start towards making that happen.

“We were so close to going to the ACC championship,” Hall said. “With that in mind and knowing what we’re capable of doing, that’s growing more and more confidence because we know what we’re capable of.”

Virginia Football Essentials

Three Themes From Pitt’s Previous Three Wins Over UVA

1. Panthers Have Controlled The Line of Scrimmage

During his weekly Monday press conference this week, Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall said: “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 matchups, so there is a physical component, but then certainly an intensity that has to be played with from the beginning to end. Can’t be bits and pieces and can’t be streaks here or there or series here or there. I think Pitt has done a nice job in that area in our first three matchups, so my message has been consistent.”

Last season’s matchup is an excellent example of what Mendenhall is talking about. Pittsburgh rushed for 254 yards on 44 carries against the Hoos last November. However, 116 of those yards came on Darrin Hall touchdown runs of 41 and 75 yards. Take those away and the Panthers had 138 yards rushing on 40 carries, an average of just 3.45 yards per carry. Unfortunately for the Hoos, those plays counted. UVA was not able to break the big plays in the run game and finished with just 44 yards on 26 carries. Pitt has outrushed UVA in all three games, including 176-102 in 2017 and 209 to 86 in 2016.

The Pitt defense sacked Bryce Perkins five times last season. Virginia brought down Kenny Pickett four times, which is good, but Pitt’s defense has racked up a total of 12 sacks against the Hoos in the past three games, while the Cavaliers have amassed just six – four last season and one in each of the previous two outings. Pitt’s low number sack-wise versus UVA the past three years is three.

The type of offense UVA faces may change, but the message remains the same. The Cavaliers need to match or exceed Pitt’s physicality and intensity from start to finish, with no lulls.

2. Panthers Have Controlled The Second Half

Pittsburgh has outscored Virginia 36-13 in the second half in the last three matchups.

2018 – Virginia led 10-7 at the half last season only to see the Panthers walk out of Scott Stadium with a 23-13 win. That’s a 16-3 second-half advantage for Pitt, which had a 15-play, 84-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter to take a 14-10 lead.

2017 – Pitt carried a 21-7 lead into halftime and outscored the Cavaliers 10-7 in the second half to secure the 31-14 victory.

2016 – The Panthers outscored the Hoos 10-3 in the second half in Charlottesville, coming away with a 45-31 win.

3. Virginia Has Surrendered Big Plays

Virginia gave up touchdown runs of 41 and 75 yards to the Panthers last season. A 25-yard touchdown run and a 75-yard punt return touchdown propelled the Panthers to victory in 2017, and in 2016 Pat Narduzzi’s club scored touchdowns on a 38-yard pass, a 93-yard kickoff return, and a 59-yard interception return (at the end of the first half no less).

In addition to losing the battle up front, UVA has surrendered big touchdown plays in all three losses.

Three Matchups To Watch

1. The Trenches

Virginia’s head coach said it all in the statement above.

The Cavalier offensive line, which features two new starters in center Olusegun Oluwatimi and right tackle Ryan Swoboda, must win the battle with a Pitt defensive line that lost potentially its best defensive lineman, starting defensive end Rashad Weaver, in the preseason to a knee injury. Pitt has some experience returning, such as end Patrick Jones II and tackles Amir Watts and Keyshon Camp, but not much in the way of starting experience, so it appears the Panthers will need players to play expanded roles on the D-line.

On the other side, a talented and deep Cavalier defensive front with a lot of potential takes on a Pitt offensive line featuring four new starters. You would think UVA has the advantage here coming in.

2. Wide Receivers Versus Defensive Backs

Pitt is running a new offense under offensive coordinator Mark Whipple. While a tough, rugged run game was Pitt’s focus in previous years, Whipple’s offense is expected to feature more passing, leaving the onus this year on Pickett and his receivers to produce. Senior Maurice Ffrench and junior Taysir Mack are the headliners of Pitt’s receiving corps. Virginia counters with an All-American at cornerback in Bryce Hall and two experienced, quality safeties in Brenton Nelson and Joey Blount. Look for the Panthers to target new starting corner Nick Grant early and often.

On the other side, Pitt’s secondary is the strength of its defense heading into 2019. Senior free safety Damar Hamlin, sophomore strong safety Paris Ford (picked by a handful of Pitt media to be a breakout player this season), senior cornerback Dane Jackson and junior cornerback Jason Pinnock are the likely starters, but this unit has depth. The Virginia receivers, led by Joe Reed and Hasise Dubois, will be challenged for sure.

3. Virginia’s Kick Return Coverage Versus Ffrench

In Pat Narduzzi’s four years as head coach, Pitt has had 12 returns – seven kickoff, five punt – go for touchdowns. Virginia was burned for a kickoff return in 2016 and a punt return in 2017. Ffrench returned not one, but two kickoffs for touchdowns last season. Meanwhile, UVA ranked near the bottom of all Division 1 teams in kickoff return coverage last season. Brian Delaney’s big leg and ability to kick touchbacks should prevent Ffrench from having many opportunities, but if he gets an opportunity the Cavalier kick coverage team will have to be sharp. Ffrench is the team’s punt returner as well, so the punt coverage unit will have to be locked in as well.

Three Panthers To Watch

1. Kenny Pickett, Quarterback

If Pitt wants to successfully implement its passing attack, Pickett, who completed 58 percent of passes (180-of-310) for 1,969 yards, will be front and center.

2. Damar Hamlin, Free Safety

Hamlin, who Phil Steele and Athlon list as a preseason All-ACC first-team safety, had eight solo tackles – nine in total – and one pass breakup versus Virginia last season. He may be the headliner of a very talented defensive backfield that, again, appears to be the strength of this Panthers defense.

3. Jimmy Morrissey, Center

Ffrench certainly will be vitally important as a receiver and returner, but I went with Morrissey here because Pitt’s offensive line is revamped and faces what should be a very tough UVA front seven in week one. The former walk-on earned All-ACC Third-Team honors for his performance last season and enters 2019 as one of the conference’s top offensive linemen. Morrissey has started 23 games the past two seasons. The four other projected starters have a total of nine starts combined among them – left tackle Carter Warren with zero, left guard Bryce Hargrove with three (though they were Miami, Clemson and Stanford at the end of last year, and he was a regular in the rotation), right guard Gabe Houy with one, and Michigan graduate transfer right tackle Nolan Ulizio with five.

Morrissey is a confident player – he indicated he enjoys playing against the 3-4, stating he likes playing with a nose tackle right over him (paging Jowon Briggs) – and he’ll be the glue that holds this line together, at least early in 2019.

Remember When …

Virginia crushed South Carolina in the 2018 Belk Bowl? What a great way to cap off the outstanding careers of Olamide Zaccheaus and Chris Peace, among others, and catapult UVA into the offseason.

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