The Virginia football team opens its season on Saturday night at Pittsburgh. The game is scheduled for a 7:30 p.m. kickoff as the two Coastal Division foes help jumpstart the new ACC Network’s programming.
Starting with a conference foe means there are some knowns and some unknowns waiting on Saturday. The two teams obviously know each other as a yearly opponent in the division. The two head coaches have been in place for at least three years with Pat Narduzzi at Pitt and Bronco Mendenhall at Virginia so there’s some familiarity there. Both sides have also been dissecting video throughout the offseason to prepare for the opener.
Those known factors have gotten some attention from the Hoos this week. Primarily, UVA remembers Pitt as a tough opponent both physically and mentally. The Cavaliers think the Panthers have took it to them in that department the last several years in building a four-game winning streak. In fact, Virginia has just one win in this series since Pittsburgh came to the ACC.
“There is a physicality but also an intensity,” Mendenhall said. “Yeah, I don’t back off the statement. 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.”
On the flipside, it’s the opening game of the year. No one is sure how any freshmen will play and both teams have some guys in significant roles that have yet to play a college snap. Pittsburgh brought in a new offensive coordinator so that means the Panthers are learning a new scheme and that the Cavaliers don’t really know what it will look like. They’ve studied Mark Whipple’s previous stops for some clues.
Meanwhile, Narduzzi isn’t really sure what his team will look like against UVA quarterback Bryce Perkins this early in the season. Last year’s November game had built up plenty of rhythm and habits when it came to tackling; the Panthers held him in check in that meeting.
“Obviously Bryce can throw it and he can run it and scramble,” Narduzzi said. “It’s getting our kids used to what we need. First thing we’re going to have to get used to, last time we played them, we were in mid-season form as far as hitting a quarterback. We stayed off the quarterbacks, which scares me. We’re going to have to hit the quarterback this week on the scout field. We did a little bit last week, but our kids were kind of like, even though our scout quarterbacks didn’t have red jerseys on, they were still, ‘That’s the quarterback.’ Stayed off him. They’re going to have the green light to go light a quarterback up and tackle him this week. That’s the biggest thing, tackling the quarterback. I would say whether it’s Perkins or anybody, Vinny Testaverde, doesn’t matter who we’re facing in the pocket, we got to hit the guy regardless of how athletic he is. He poses a challenge because he’s a scrambler and can make a lot of things happen with his feet.”
Regardless of the knowns and unknowns, this is likely a key game in the Coastal Division race. Pitt won the division last season and was picked among the top four teams again this season by the media. UVA, Miami, Virginia Tech, and Pittsburgh are all capable of coming out on top in the end. That means head-to-head matchups between the quartet are likely critical.
With that in mind, it’s time for the Keys & Picks.
Kris’ Keys To Winning
1. Be physical. Over the three years of the Narduzzi-Mendenhall matchups, Pittsburgh has won up front on both sides of the ball. In 2016, the Panthers averaged 4.3 yards per carry and allowed 4 sacks while the Hoos averaged 3.3 yards per carry and allowed 1 sack. In 2017, the Panthers averaged 4.4 yards per carry and allowed 3 sacks while the Hoos averaged 3.3 yards per carry and allowed 1 sack. Last year, the Panthers averaged 6.0 yards per carry and allowed 5 sacks while the Hoos averaged 1.7 yards per carry and allowed 4 sacks. Statistics don’t always tell the whole story, but it’s clear that Pitt has been able impose its will in the running game and built from there. The Cavaliers need to at least hold their own along the lines to try to end their skid in this series.
2. Be flexible. As mentioned in the intro, the Panthers decided to change their offense this offseason and brought in Whipple. There is plenty of film out there on Whipple’s offense, but the question becomes how he marries his style with Pittsburgh players and identity. The main goal with the change, though, is to boost the passing attack. UVA doesn’t really know what it will get specifically other than that. Of course, that might not matter. This article out of the Pitt area suggests that Whipple adjusts and installs things week to week based on opponent. Bottom line, the defense will need to be ready to adjust on the fly.
3. Be efficient. Over the past three years, the Pittsburgh defense hasn’t been all that daunting statistically. The Panthers have ranked no higher than 65th nationally in scoring defense. Last season, they were 96th nationally in yards per carry allowed at 4.81. Yet, UVA hasn’t been able to get points on the board against them. The Hoos need to be more opportunistic and cash in their chances. Last year, for example, Virginia fumbled at the Pitt 31, kicked a field goal from the Pitt 12, and kicked a field goal from the Pitt 24. In a 10-point loss, those three drives alone could have turned the tables. In 2017, the Hoos had drives end at the Pitt 38, 25, 28, 37, 1, and 10 without points and lost 31-14. If they can finish off drives with points, maybe that leads to a win this time.
Sabre Editor Kris Wright
Here we are. The season opener following a bowl win for the first time in 13 years. The laurels of a turn-around year and the first winning record in six years now behind them, the Wahoos begin their quest for sustained success. That, of course, is the hard part, not an initial breakthrough. The Cavaliers don’t seem content with last season’s eight wins, however, so that’s a good sign. Perhaps last season’s November losses to Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech, and Virginia Tech served as a motivational fuel beyond just the Belk Bowl. The Panthers also knocked the Hoos out of the ACC Championship game in what was a de facto Coastal Division title contest.
Fittingly, the schedule has dealt an immediate chance at reversing that Pitt result in 2019. While the Panthers aren’t the same club as a year ago, they’ve still had the upper hand in this series and they’ll be at home. So if the Cavaliers are indeed Coastal Division contenders again – favorites if you buy the ACC media’s poll – they’ll need to so something they haven’t done yet: beat Pitt with Pat Narduzzi in charge. A loss in this game wouldn’t destroy the season or anything, but it would essentially eliminate any margin for error down the road when it comes to chasing the division title.
So can the Hoos get it done? They have the better quarterback, more experience in some key places like the offensive line, and a defense that travels. That should put them in good position for a season opener. The betting lines favor UVA too. I think Virginia comes out in statement mode. VIRGINIA 31, PITTSBURGH 17. Last Season: 7-6.
Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne
No question, the Virginia football program has taken significant steps forward in each of Bronco Mendenhall’s first three seasons, breaking through with an 8-5 record and the Belk Bowl title in 2018. Last year’s success and the return of key players have led to loftier expectations for the program in 2019, as the media have predicted the Hoos to win the Coastal and take on Clemson in the ACC Championship Game.
Virginia has earned the recognition, but I think there is not much separating teams 1-4 in the Coastal Division race, so the margin for error is small from game to game. Factor in this being a season opener as well as Pittsburgh’s recent success against the Hoos (the Panthers have won four straight) and Virginia’s struggles on the road the past three seasons (only four true road wins), there is certainly reason to question what the outcome of Saturday’s game will be.
Pitt has been able to control the line of scrimmage on both sides in recent history, but this year I think UVA enters with the edge. The Hoos feature a dynamic front seven that has a lot of potential, while Pitt, which does return confident All-ACC Third Team center Jimmy Morrissey, replaces four starters on the offensive line. The Virginia offensive line versus the Pitt defensive line matchup is more of a push, but Pitt did lose top defensive end Rashad Weaver in the preseason and the Cavaliers return three very experienced players in Dillon Reinkensmeyer, Ryan Nelson, and Chris Glaser. The UVA offensive line has to create space in the running game to open up the passing game for Bryce Perkins and company, who face a very good Pitt secondary.
This game will be close, but I think the Cavalier defense will set the tone against a Pitt offense that is implementing a new scheme while needing to replace key players at running back and offensive line. Perkins and company will score enough points to escape Heinz Field. VIRGINIA 24, PITTSBURGH 19. Last Season: 8-5.