Virginia football head coach Bronco Mendenhall was asked on Monday about the importance of competing for the Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division title, which is exactly where the Hoos find themselves heading into Saturday afternoon’s matchup at Pittsburgh.
“You can’t put more emphasis on it than we have,” Mendenhall said. “That’s the expectation that I have for our program, is that we’re the Coastal champion every year. We were the defending champion going into COVID. Coming out of it we want to repeat. We have every chance to do that with two Coastal games remaining. I like that opportunity and I like how hard the program has worked to earn that chance. Yeah, so here we go.”
As Coach Mendenhall mentioned, UVA captured the Coastal Division title for the first time in school history in 2019. The march toward that accomplishment began with a season-opening matchup at Pittsburgh, which had defeated Virginia in all three previous matchups in the Mendenhall era. The Cavaliers took down the homestanding Panthers, 30-14, en route to a 6-2 ACC record and division title. There were no divisional winners in the 2020 season, so UVA technically remains the reigning Coastal Division champs.
On Saturday, Pitt (8-2 overall, 5-1 in the ACC), which last captured the Coastal Division crown in 2018, can clinch the Coastal by defeating the Cavaliers, but Virginia (6-4, 4-2) control its own destiny as well. With wins at Pitt and at home against Virginia Tech on November 27, Virginia repeats as Coastal Division champions.
My how things have changed since these two teams last met on August 30, 2019, Pitt’s first game with Mark Whipple as Offensive Coordinator. Quarterback Kenny Pickett completed 21-of-41 passes for 185 yards with one touchdown and an interception. The Cavalier defense held the Pitt offense to 263 total yards, 14 points, and 3.7 yard-per-play average.
Entering Saturday, Virginia’s defense ranks 120 among 130 FBS programs in total defense (allowing 461.9 yards per game) and is no. 99 in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 30.5 points per contest. Pittsburgh’s offense, meanwhile, is averaging 531.1 yards and 43.5 points per game in its third season under Whipple. This includes a passing attack that is explosive and efficient. Pickett and company are averaging 373.1 yards per game through the air. The senior signal caller has completed 67.5% of his passes, thrown 32 touchdowns, and has been picked off just four times.
Accompanying a well-oiled Pitt offense is a defense that is surrendering just 22.7 points per game, is strong against the run (allowing 3.1 yards per carry and 106 yards per game), and is tied for third in the nation in total sacks (36) and sacks per game (3.6).
“They have an aggressive mindset just within their scheme,” Mendenhall said. “Probably some of the most pressure in all of college football, meaning numbers. They certainly aren’t afraid to use six rushers. Six rushers is, yeah, about the most you can bring consistently. Pitt makes that kind of commonplace. They do it really well. They max their coverage with that. When they’re not bringing that amount, right, there’s other combinations, really active front players that are taught to be aggressive and kind of I would say attack first and react second in terms of their mindset. They do a really nice job.”
Virginia has a prolific offense of its own, led by redshirt junior quarterback Brennan Armstrong and multiple standout receivers including Dontayvion Wicks, Keytaon Thompson, Billy Kemp IV and Jelani Woods. Armstrong completed 64.3% of his throws for 3,557 yards with 27 touchdowns and eight interceptions in eight full games and three quarters of a ninth game. The talented lefty suffered a rib injury in the fourth quarter of the BYU game on October 30, though, and missed last week’s 28-3 loss to Notre Dame because of the injury. Before Notre Dame, UVA was averaging 38.8 points per game.
Pitt has two losses on the season, both coming in shootout-type scenarios at home. Western Michigan defeated Pitt in Week 3, 44-41, and Miami won 38-34. WMU and Miami each had double-digit first-half leads – 20-7 and 21-7, respectively – before holding on for victories. Both teams had success through the air, which would be a positive for UVA if Armstrong can go, but his status remains in question heading into the biggest game for both programs.
Three Panthers To Watch: Offense
Kenny Pickett, Quarterback, #8
See above. The 6’3”, 220-pound Pickett has been sensational, transforming into one of the nation’s top quarterbacks. The UVA defense will have its hands full.
“I think the two main things would be, first of all, time in the system, right? So where the ball is going, how fast it’s going there,” Mendenhall said of Pickett’s development. “He’s seeing things really quickly. When he’s delivering it, he’s confident, right? He knows where it’s going, why it’s going there, and versus what coverage. If he doesn’t like that, then he’s mobile. He’s difficult to sack.”
Jordan Addison, Wide Receiver, #3
Biletnikoff Award semifinalist Jordan Addison is Pickett’s top receiver, totaling 60 catches for 1,070 yards and 11 touchdowns. The 6’0”, 175-pound sophomore has excelled when it comes to big plays, an Achilles heel of the Cavalier defense the past two-and-a-half seasons. He has at least one catch of 21 or more yards in all 10 Panther games this season. In five games he had at least one catch of 40 yards or more. According to Pro Football Focus, Addison, who is averaging 17.8 yards per catch, has caught 15 of 26 targets on throws of 20+ yards, earning a 99.9 grade in that department.
Israel Abanikanda, Running Back, #2
Wide receiver Jared Wayne, a 6’3”, 205-pound junior who is second on the team in catches (37) and yards (566), could easily get the No. 3 offense slot in “Panthers To Watch.” But I’ll go with a more under-the-radar pick in Abanikanda, who may not get the headlines as the Pittsburgh passing attack but is a productive player capable of putting together an impressive game if the Hoos focus solely on Pickett and the receivers.
Abanikanda has averaged 5.3 yards per carry on his way to tallying 561 yards rushing and five touchdowns this season. While he hasn’t shown big-time explosiveness – his season-high rush is 28 yards – he runs with good vision and balance. At 5’11”, 215 pounds, Abanikanda is a challenge to bring down. The sophomore is a threat as a receiver, totaling 22 receptions for 184 yards and a touchdown. Twelve of those catches and the touchdown have come in Pittsburgh’s last four game.
Three Panthers To Watch: Defense
Habakkuk Baldonado, Defensive End, #87
Pittsburgh has sacked the opposing quarterback 36 times in 10 games. The 6’5”, 260-pound Baldonado has been a major force in the Panther pass rush, leading the team in sacks (8) and quarterback hurries (8). Baldonado leads all Pitt defenders in tackles for loss (10.5).
Cam Bright, Linebacker, #38
The 6’1”, 220-pound senior has been effective behind the line of scrimmage for the Panthers this season, racking up six tackles for loss including 3.5 sacks and five quarterback hurries. Four of those tackles for loss have come in the past three games. Bright, who has started six of 10 games this season, has one pass breakup and an interception as well.
Erick Hallett II, Safety, #31
Tied with linebacker John Petrishen for third on the team in overall tackles, free safety Erick Hallett II leads the Pitt defense with 32 solo tackles. He has a team-best eight pass breakups and has one of Pitt’s 10 interceptions. The 5’11”, 195-pound junior has 2.5 tackles for loss, including one in each of the past two games (wins over Duke and North Carolina). The versatile Hallett II has played safety and corner in his Panther career.
Brennan Armstrong’s Status
Although the Cavalier offense should be better if Woolfolk gets the call, Virginia’s best chance to win is with Armstrong at quarterback, hitting big plays in the pass game and outscoring the Panthers.
Keep It Close
Virginia has found itself trailing by 21 points in the first half in each of its past two games. With Armstrong, the Hoos were able to rally to take the lead at halftime against BYU. Without Armstrong, Virginia had no chance for a comeback after falling behind 21-0 to Notre Dame. Even if Armstrong plays, unless he has made a surprising recovery and picks up where he left off pre-injury, UVA cannot afford to get down big. A good first half is especially important given the way the previous two games have gone, as Pitt has the explosive potential to put this game away by halftime. If the Hoos lead, are tied, or are trailing by one score entering the fourth quarter, that’s when the pressure starts to mount on the homestanding Panthers, who have outscored opponents 54-48 in the fourth quarter this season. Pitt almost let one slip late last week against UNC.
If Pitt plays turnover-free football, I don’t think UVA will be able to hold the Panthers all game long. If/when the opportunity presents itself, the Hoos have to come up with multiple turnovers on Saturday while playing turnover free football. This could be a tall order as Pickett has only tossed four picks all year. Entering Saturday, Pittsburgh has forced 15 turnovers while surrendering 11 (four INTs, seven fumbles), and Virginia has forced 12 turnovers and surrendered the ball 15 times.
Sabre Editor Kris Wright
One of the Hoos’ main goals each season is to win the ACC Coastal Division. They accomplished that for the first time in program history in 2019 and the 2020 schedule alterations prevented the opportunity to do it again. The chances for a repeat after the gap year remain intact with Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech left on the schedule. Win both and UVA wins the Coastal.
That will be a challenging as the current division leader Pitt gets Virginia at home and then there’s the always concerning game with VT. Plus, there’s the giant Brennan Armstrong question. The Hoos’ star quarterback left the BYU game with an injury and sat out against Notre Dame even after a bye week. His status remains unknown. The Panthers have their own star quarterback Kenny Pickett and they’ve been putting up points consistently all season. They rank fourth nationally at 43.5 points per game. Obviously, Virginia’s defense has had its problems against strong offenses this season with UNC, Wake Forest, and BYU among teams that piled up points. Even with a better effort against Notre Dame last week and some of the small strategy changes from that game, the defense shouldn’t be expected to roll out a dominant performance. In other words, it’s hard to see how the Wahoos can win this game at Pittsburgh without Armstrong orchestrating the offense. UVA likely needs at least 30 points and maybe more to have a shot.
I think Armstrong will play. Even if he’s not 100%, that gives Virginia its best shot at its goal and he is as competitive as it gets. Will that be enough? I don’t know. Best case scenario: the Cavaliers steal a possession or two (turnovers, fourth down conversion, fakes?) and win a shootout. Given Armstrong’s uncertain status, I don’t think I can pick a UVA win but this feels like a tailor-made Mendenhall “will of the underdog” setting. It should be interesting. PITT 41, UVA 35.
Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne
Brennan Armstrong’s injury could not have come at a worse time for Virginia. We all saw what the offense looks like without him. If he cannot go on Saturday, the Cavaliers are likely to struggle again. If he does play, how sharp will he be? Major questions on offense are not a good thing heading into this week, especially when we’ve seen the Cavalier defense give up 59 and 66 points on the road to UNC and BYU earlier this season. I hope UVA can rise to the occasion and play its best complementary football, but I think Pitt is primed to clinch the ACC Coastal in strong fashion. PITTSBURGH 52, VIRGINIA 17 without Armstrong. With Armstrong, Pitt 52, Virginia 38.