The University of Virginia football had its quarterback back. The defense made the stops to give the team a chance to win. In the end, though, it was the Pittsburgh Panthers who claimed a 48-38 victory and clinched the 2021 Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division title.
Virginia, which could have claimed the Coastal with a win over Pitt and a win over Virginia Tech next Saturday, falls to 6-5 overall, 4-3 in the ACC.
Seemingly unaffected by a rib injury that sidelined him last Saturday versus Notre Dame, Brennan Armstrong orchestrated a 10-play, 70-yard touchdown drive on the game’s opening possession. Not only did the visiting Hoos go up seven, but Pittsburgh lost one of its top defenders in linebacker SirVocea Dennis, who was ejected for targeting against Cavalier “football player” Keytaon Thompson. The penalty gave the Cavaliers a first down. Eight plays later, Armstrong found Thompson for a 3-yard touchdown pass to give the Hoos a 7-0 lead.
This was the beginning of a big day for Armstrong, who finished with 487 yards passing and three touchdowns.
“I was excited. I felt good. Got an extra week of healing through Notre Dame,” Armstrong told WINA’s Jay James in the postgame report. He added, “Throughout the game, I felt fine.”
Continuing the ideal start, the UVA defense forced a punt on Pittsburgh’s opening drive. Armstrong and company crossed into Panther territory but ultimately did not score, failing to capitalize on an opportunity to take an early two-touchdown lead, something Western Michigan and Miami did when they won at Pitt earlier in the season. Missed opportunities proved to be a theme for UVA Saturday at Heinz Field.
Guided by senior quarterback Kenny Pickett, who averaged 373 yards passing and tossed 32 touchdowns to just four interceptions in the 10 previous games, Pitt (9-2, 6-1) surged to a 14-7 lead with a pair of touchdowns from its star signal caller to its star receiver, Jordan Addison. UVA tied the game at 14 on a 2-yard touchdown run by Mike Hollins before the Panthers struck with the first of three huge special teams plays on the night. Israel Abanikanda returned the ensuing kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown, putting the home team up by seven once again.
Pittsburgh forced a Virginia three-and-out before making another big special teams play, when Addison returned Jacob Finn’s punt 39 yards to the UVA 38. The Cavalier defense did well to hold Pittsburgh to a Sam Scarton 36-yard field goal. An Armstrong 7-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jelani Woods pulled the Hoos to within three, 24-21, at halftime.
On the second play of the third quarter, senior safety Joey Blount picked off Pickett and sprinted to the Panther 12. The Hoos could not capitalize with a touchdown, instead settling for a 31-yard field goal from Brendan Farrell to tie the game at 24. Virginia could never regain the lead, despite multiple opportunities to do so …
– Tied at 24 with 12:01 in the third quarter, the Virginia offense had possession after the defense forced a Pitt three-and-out. Two sacks from the Panther defense contributed to a three-and-out from the Hoos. Pitt took a 31-24 lead on the next drive, when Pickett found Addison for a 34-yard score.
– Trailing 34-31 with 1:46 remaining in the third quarter, UVA failed to get a first down. On the ensuing drive, Pitt was all set to kick a field goal on fourth-and-four at the UVA 10 when another special teams blunder cost the Hoos. Multiple Virginia players inexplicably jumped offside, giving Pitt a first down. Rodney Hammond Jr. plunged into the endzone from a yard out three plays later, giving the Panthers a 41-31 edge.
– UVA responded to Pitt’s 10-point lead with a two-play, 75-yard touchdown drive capped by an Armstrong 39-yard touchdown strike to Ra’Shaun Henry. The Cavalier defense forced a punt on the ensuing drive, giving the offense possession with 6:37 remaining. Trailing 41-38, Virginia has a 2nd-and-7 near midfield when center Olusegun Oluwatimi snapped the ball. The apparently was a miscommunication as Armstrong was unprepared for it, and the result was a 14-yard loss. Virginia opted to punt on 4th-and-13 at its 40 with around four minutes remaining.
Leading by three, Pittsburgh all but sealed the game with a 62-yard touchdown pass from Pickett to Addison on 3rd-and-5 with 2:10 remaining. Armstrong drove the Hoos to the Pitt 14 before tossing an incompletion on 4th-and-2. Despite needing two scores, Mendenhall opted against kicking a 31-yard field goal attempt that could have cut the lead to seven points and set up an onside kick opportunity. Instead, Pitt ran out the clock following Armstrong’s incompletion.
In a matchup of two of the most prolific passing offenses in the nation this season, both offenses were excellent. Armstrong completed 36-of-49 passes for 487 yards with three touchdowns and one interception (on a Hail Mary at the end of the first half). He surpassed Matt Schaub for touchdown passes in a season in the process. Seven Cavaliers had at least one reception, led by Thompson with 11 – the fifth time in the past six games he has had nine or more catches – for 126 yards and two scores (1 rush, 1 receiving). Dontayvion Wicks had 10 receptions for 133 yards. The reception totals for Thompson and Woods were career-highs. Jelani Woods had six receptions for 75 yards and a score, and Henry had three catches for 76 yards and a score. Billy Kemp IV had three receptions for 24 yards, returning to the field after leaving last week’s game with an injury.
Pickett completed 26-of-41 passes for 340 yards with four touchdowns and two picks. The Panthers featured a 100-yard rusher in Vincent Davis (12 rushes, 100 yards) and churned out 169 yards and 4.4 yards per carry. Biletnikoff Award semifinalist Jordan Addison figured to be a challenge for the Virginia secondary. He was. The speedster led all receivers with 14 receptions for 202 yards and four touchdowns, including the game-clincher in which he took the ball away from Cavalier corner Darrius Bratton.
Pitt’s defense, which was tied for third in the nation in total sacks coming in, sacked Armstrong five times. Virginia notched three sacks of its own, with Nick Jackson, Joey Blount, and true freshman linebacker Mike Green each bringing down Pickett. UVA was credited with 16 quarterback hurries and had two interceptions, which helped the Hoos win the turnover battle 2-1.
Thrilling at times, maddening at others, Virginia football fought hard and had a chance to defeat Pittsburgh on the road. The Hoos couldn’t overcome the mistakes, most notably on special teams, to get the win. The Coastal title is no longer available for this team, but a winning record is, and the Hoos can clinch this feat with a victory in next Saturday’s Commonwealth Cup in Scott Stadium. Kickoff is set for 3:45 p.m.
“Last two are must-win for us,” Armstrong said, referring to the Commonwealth Cup and whatever bowl game the Cavaliers play in.
“You’re not going to win everything,” UVA linebacker Noah Taylor told CBS 19 Charlottesville. “You’re going to fall short a lot. It’s not about how you fall. It’s about how you get back up. What we’re going to do right now, we’re going to attack the film, we’re going to get back up.”
– Highlights, Courtesy of the ACC Digital Network