Virginia Football Game Preview: Pittsburgh

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The Virginia football team has won two straight games.
Donte Wilkins leads the defensive line with 22 tackles. ~ Kris Wright

The Virginia football team rattled off back-to-back wins against Central Michigan and Duke. Those victories gave Bronco Mendenhall his 100th win and ended a 17-game road losing streak, respectively. And then … a bye week.

On one hand, with momentum building from the consecutive wins, the timing seemed unfortunate. On the other, with several key players like Andrew Brown, Quin Blanding, and Kurt Benkert all nursing injuries, the timing seemed potentially beneficial. Either way, Mendenhall knew from the minute the clock ran out at Duke, that the bye week presented a unique challenge in his first season in Charlottesville.

“Any bye week, I think there’s arguments either way anytime you have one of what the pluses are in terms of momentum and what the negatives are in terms of possibly losing momentum, the health of your team,” Mendenhall said. “I really believe we are improving because of the consistency of the tests and knowing there’s another one coming. And so without that I wasn’t quite sure the program was mature enough and how they would approach the practice. But we did a nice job from the minute we finished celebrating in Duke’s locker room, I framed this will be a difficult week. And our team does well if we understand the why. And the why was, in my opinion, is we’re gaining momentum and improving as a program because of the work, because of the volume and because of the urgency.”

With that in mind, Mendenhall stuck to his overall philosophy of using the bye week for increased reps and not for rest. The players that spoke with the media this week seemed to like the consistency of staying in that rhythm. Until the Hoos hit the field Saturday, Mendenhall won’t know for sure if the approach worked but he liked what he saw on the practice field.

“My philosophy, plenty of work to do and plenty of momentum to gain,” Mendenhall said. “And certainly there’s an argument for rest and rejuvenation, which I think we balanced appropriately. But we’re gaining momentum and improving because of the volume of work we’re putting in. And so with a game not scheduled that wasn’t motive or reason for us to then slow down. So we accelerated. I think we’ve improved again. Hard to say, because there wasn’t a Saturday game to demonstrate that. But I feel really good of what we accomplished in the bye week.”

It’s time to take a closer look at Saturday’s showdown with Pitt.

Virginia Football Essentials

Hoo Facts

  • This week is Homecomings at Virginia, which owns a 46-43-2 all-time record at Homecomings. The Hoos won last season’s game against Syracuse, 44-38, in three overtimes.
  • Homecomings is the perfect backdrop for this week’s contest because it marks the 85th anniversary of the first game played at Scott Stadium. UVA lost to VMI 18-3 on Oct. 15, 1931.
  • Pittsburgh leads the all-time series with Virginia, 5-3. UVA has won both meetings at Scott Stadium, though.
  • UVA owns a 27-30 record when playing after a bye week, including a 6-3 record in its last nine games. Bronco Mendenhall tallied a 10-4 record at BYU after a bye week.
  • The Hoos scored 49 and 34 points in their last two wins, the first time since 2011 that the team produced 34 more in consecutive games (both were wins – 40-3 vs. William & Mary and 34-31 at Indiana). The last time they scored 34 or more in three straight games? 2002 when they won 34-21 vs. South Carolina, 48-29 vs. Akron, and 38-34 at Wake Forest.

Panther Facts

  • Pat Narduzzi owns a 12-7 record as Pitt’s head coach, including a 26-19 win against Virginia last season.
  • In the three ACC meetings between Pitt and Virginia, the average victory margin has been just 7.7 points.
  • The Panthers have not won a road game this season with losses at Oklahoma State and North Carolina.
  • Pittsburgh has played in several close games this season with two wins by 3 points and two losses by 7 points and 1 point.
  • The Panthers are averaging 37.3 points per game. Pitt has scored at least 36 points in five straight games for the first time in program history. In a sign of the times for college football, 37.3 points per game leaves Pitt ranked just 34th nationally.

3 Hoos To Watch

  • Defensive tackle Donte Wilkins. The senior leads the defensive line with 22 stops, which is good enough for fourth on the team. Wilkins’ play in the trenches eats up blocks and allows Micah Kiser (58 tackles), Quin Blanding (46), Zach Bradshaw (43), and Kelvin Rainey (37) to make tackles in the box. Depending on Andrew Brown’s availability after an injury at Duke, Pitt could team up on Wilkins in the middle. “Because we’re such a good inside-outside zone team, a little bit of power, it really doesn’t change much as far as who they are and where they are up front,” Narduzzi said. “I think, again, Wilkins is a good player inside. But I think we got some good players inside that can handle him up front.”
  • Safety Quin Blanding. Pittsburgh does a nice job with its power running game, which can make the play at safety a tough challenge. UVA will need Blanding to be able to come up toward the line of scrimmage and make tackles to help slow down that rushing attack. On the other hand, the Panthers use that running game to set up play action and find openings in the secondary. Opponents at times have figured out ways to scheme tight ends against Blanding after play action so he’ll need to be on top of his game with Scott Orndoff in town this week. Orndoff has 14 catches and 2 touchdowns this season and 10 touchdowns in his career. He had 2 catches with a touchdown in last season’s matchup.
  • Receiver Doni Dowling. Toughing it out since an injury in the season opener, Dowling has maintained a consistent contribution with four or more catches in three games and 51 yards or more in four games. Still, he’s had some drops and does not have a touchdown catch since the opener. Did the bye week help Dowling get comfortable again? Can he come through against a vulnerable Pitt pass defense? UVA could use a big day from the wideout.

3 Panthers To Watch

  • Defensive end Ejuan Price. The senior leads the nation in quarterback sacks with 8.5 already this season. He has at least one sack in every game this season. That effort has helped Pitt rank 11th nationally with 3.5 sacks per game. In 2015, Price tallied 11.5 total sacks and he now has 25 in his career, which ranks seventh all-time at Pittsburgh. UVA’s offensive line moved to wider splits so it will be interesting to see what that looks like in dealing with Price. “He’s a young man that tries really hard and is dynamic and has a natural skill set for coming off the ball and being slippery and elusive and getting to the quarterback,” Mendenhall said. “It’s certainly not something you can just say, well, we’ll just put one guy on and see how that works. There has to be a plan in place, and hopefully that mitigates some of what his strength is.”
  • Receiver/returner Quadree Henderson. The sophomore does a little bit of everything for the Panthers. He ranks second nationally in all-purpose yards with 1,046 so far this season. He leads the ACC in kick returns with a 33.1-yard return average. He had a streak of three games with kickoff returns of at least 84 yards, including a pair of touchdowns. Against Navy in the Military Bowl, he had a 100-yard touchdown return and in the season opener against Villanova he added a 96-yard touchdown return. He also broke one for 84 yards against Penn State that set up a touchdown. Henderson is also Pitt’s second-leading rusher with 343 yards (11.1 yards per carry); he ahd 107 rushing yards at UNC. He is second in receiving as well with 174 yards (10.2 per catch).
  • Running back James Conner. Conner overcame Hodgkin lymphoma and a significant knee injury to get back on the field for Pitt this season. He’s making the most of it. He leads the Panthers in rushing with 441 yards on 104 carries and is second in scoring with 42 points. With seven touchdowns this season, he ranks second all-time at Pitt (behind only Tony Dorsett) with 43 career touchdowns. He has rushed for at least 100 yards 13 times in his Pitt career; he has four 200-yard games.

3 Things To Watch

  • Returns. If everything you just read about Quadree Henderson doesn’t make you a little nervous as a Virginia fan, this might: UVA ranks 102nd nationally and 13th in the ACC by allowing 23.14 yards per return this season. Don’t be surprised to see the Cavaliers try some different kick strategies in this one since average starting field position is a key metric for the coaching staff. On the flipside, UVA is tied for 41st nationally with 23.0 yards per return. Pittsburgh ranks 80th nationally by allowing 21.87 yards per return. Mendenhall said the Hoos continue to work on coverage: “We continue to change personnel and tweak and work on schemes and move guys around. And we are average to this point at best. We have a lot of work to do from what we want to be, what we know we can be, and what our current threshold is.”
  • Running game. Pittsburgh’s formula is simple: run the football and stop the run. The Panthers average 244.2 rushing yards per game (19th nationally). That success comes in part from an experienced offensiv line that features 130 combined starts, which includes 36 career starts for tackle Adam Bisnowaty. On the other side of the ball, the Panthers allow just 98.3 yards rushing each game (10th nationally). Virginia is a pass-first team statistically this season and that is likely to continue since Pitt is so good against the run, but struggles in pass defense (124th nationally at 302.3 yards per game allowed). That’s a dangerous formula if the pass game struggles, however, because Pittsburgh rushing offense can grind up opponents and time.
  • Yards after the catch/yards after contact. This feels like a game where the team that tackles best and prevents explosive plays comes out on top in a high-scoring affair. Virginia has a slight edge in that area with 78 plays allowed of 10+ yards (29 of 20+ yards) vs. 90 plays (31 of 20+ yards) allowed of the same kind for Pitt. UVA’s offense has produced 73 such plays (21 of 20+), while the Panthers have 90 (35 of 20+). Tackling and avoiding misdirection/play action gaffes are the top priorities for the Hoos this week.
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