Friday’s Final Thoughts: Pittsburgh

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Final thoughts on the Virginia football team as it prepares for Pittsburgh.
Quin Blanding and the Hoos hope to get a win after the bye week. ~ Kris Wright

The first of Friday’s Final Thoughts focuses on Quin Blanding, who could have a critical role for the Virginia football team against Pittsburgh on Saturday. Blanding, of course, is one of UVA’s most recognizable names from his days as a five-star recruit all the way through two 100-tackle seasons. He always carries a significant role for the Hoos.

So why start there? The Panthers boast one of the nation’s best rushing attacks, averaging 244.2 rushing yards per game to rank 19th in the nation. Three of the top four rushers come from different positions to generate that success. Running back James Conner leads the team with 441 yards and 5 touchdowns on 104 carries. Receiver Quadree Henderson sits second with 343 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns on 31 carries. Quarterback Nathan Peterman checks in fourth with 197 rushing yards and 1 touchdown on 29 carries.

That likely means UVA will need its safeties in a big way to help supplement the tackling of linebackers Micah Kiser and Zach Bradshaw. After all, Connor is a powerful runner in between the tackles and receivers generally get their carries around the edge. Peterman, meanwhile, can be a threat to scramble on passing downs.

Kiser leads the team with 58 stops, while Blanding sits second with 46. Bradshaw ranks third with 43 stops, while the other starting safety Kelvin Rainey checks in fourth with 37. In other words, UVA’s safeties are well equipped to help in the running game because that’s part of what’s asked of them already.

The running game is only part of the puzzle with Pitt, though. The Panthers average 37.3 points per game, including 39.2 over the last five contests. That’s the program’s best five-game stretch since 1980. One reason for that firepower is the ability to use play action off the running game, which includes the use of talented tight end Scott Orndoff. He tallied 14 catches for 203 yards and 2 touchdowns through the first six games. One of this 10 career touchdowns came against UVA last season.

This is where Blanding comes back into the equation. He needs to be on top of his reads and keys against Pitt in order to effectively manage run support and play action coverage. At times, opponents have been able to scheme their tight ends into coverage against Blanding and pick up yards through the air. Central Michigan, for example, did that with some corner routes to the tight end that challenged Blanding.

“They do a lot of play action as well, but they also love to run the ball,” Blanding said of Pitt. “There’s going to be a lot of times I’m one on one with the fly guy so I’ve just got to show them my game.”

The good news? Blanding possesses the ability to strike the perfect balance. You don’t pile up 284 career tackles (9.8 tackles per game) and earn All-ACC and All-American recognition without it. Plus, after weeks of murmurs that Blanding has not been fully healthy this season, it sounds like the bye week may have been beneficial for the safety.

“It’s been difficult for not only Quin but for us. From fall camp on Quin has practiced one day a week. That’s on Thursdays,” Cavalier coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “His injury has been more significant, longer lasting than any of us had hoped or expected. He’s not played yet to full speed, nor full potential. And I think the bye week, if it will benefit any player, Quin is probably the one that will have benefited most from that in a little bit of additional time. … It would be nice to have him [full speed] but even with that, he’s one of the best tacklers I’ve ever coached or been with. He just doesn’t miss. He’s so clear and so precise with his communication. … And there’s a huge difference when Quin is in, and when he’s not in in terms of being able to coordinate what our tags and checks are. So even if he’s not 100 percent physically, it more than makes up for that just by having him out there to help everyone else.”

More Final Thoughts

The picks are in and four of the five members of panel think Virginia wins again this week. The average score from the quintet: Virginia 32.6, Pitt 30.4. Go vote in the poll!

Zach Bradshaw is quietly having a great season. He already posted 43 tackles, just 10 short of his output last season when 53 stops represented a career-high. He’s already surpassed last season’s statistics in tackles for loss and pass breakups too.

Kurt Benkert has a chance to put up a third straight game with impressive numbers. He put up 421 and 336 yards passing with 8 touchdown passes against Central Michigan and Duke. This week, the Pittsburgh defense comes to Charlottesville allowing 302.3 passing yards per game (124th out of 128 FBS teams) and 11 passing touchdowns (tied for 94th).

With 1,455 passing yards this season, Benkert set a new program record for the most passing yards for a QB in his first five starts.

A stat from earlier this week in the preview worth repeating: UVA will try to score 34 or more in three straight games for the first time since 2002.

Gut instinct: someone unexpected has a big receiving day.

Gut instinct part 2: Evan Butts comes up with a touchdown catch this week.

Quadree Henderson and Pitt’s kickoff return ability feels scary to me. UVA allowed long returns that bordered on breakouts from Oregon (43), CMU (34), and Duke (29). Henderson leads the ACC and ranks fifth nationally with a 33.1-yard return average. He posted a touchdown return to end last season and to start this season too.

Virginia’s tried a fake field (Oregon) and a fake punt (Duke) earlier this season. I think they make a trick play work this week.

Pitt assistant coach Andre Powell will be among those back for Homecomings this weekend. He coached at UVA from 1996-2000.

Pittsburgh running back James Conner battled through Hodgkin’s lymphoma cancer and wrote about it here.

The Hoos will wear orange jerseys this week.

As we enter a stretch of three straight home games, I’ll go ahead and say that I’m not a fan of the new team entrance. I don’t expect it to change, but hopefully it gets evaluated for next season. It’s flat.

The Panthers probably will win time of possession on Saturday so UVA needs to come through with its chances. Don’t expect the Hoos to take up a lot of time even in those cases, though. For the season, 15 of 17 touchdown drives have taken 3:50 or less off the clock.

Here are a couple of videos to wrap things up. First, a little nostalgia as Scott Stadium celebrates its 85th anniversary on Saturday.

And Thursday’s hero series to start your weekend …

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