Virginia Football Snaps 4-Game Skid To Pitt, Opens 2019 With Big Coastal Division Win

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Matt Gahm’s (no. 56) first career interception set up Virginia football’s first second-half touchdown. Virginia never looked back, closing out Pitt, 30-14, in its 2019 season opener. ~ Photo by Matt Riley of Virginia Sports

As the second quarter of Saturday night’s season opening matchup between the University of Virginia and Pittsburgh came to an end, it seemed like the same old story between the Atlantic Coast Conference Coast Division rivals. UVA would change the narrative, though, and left Heinz Field with a 30-14 win over the Panthers.

In the program’s fourth season with Bronco Mendenhall at the helm, Virginia football entered the 2019 season in unfamiliar territory as the preseason favorite to win the Coastal Division. The Cavaliers, who had lost four consecutive games to the Panthers and were 0-5 all-time at Heinz Field, enjoyed a great start as they sought an important road victory.

Pitt’s offense began its first game under offensive coordinator Mark Whipple in shaky fashion with two consecutive three-and-out possessions. Meanwhile, UVA scored a 39-yard field goal from junior kicker Brian Delaney on its opening drive and then scored the game’s first touchdown when senior quarterback Bryce Perkins found senior running back Chris Sharp for a 2-yard touchdown pass. The latter score was set up by a big special teams play by UVA sophomore linebacker Noah Taylor, who deflected Kirk Christodoulou’s punt. Virginia senior receiver Hasise Dubois returned the blocked punt seven yards to the Panther 19.

Virginia’s defense forced another punt on Pitt’s third series. The Hoos’ D was dominating … until the start of the second quarter, when, on 3rd-and-4 quarterback Kenny Pickett connected with running back A.J. Davis on a quick sideline pass. Davis made the catch and sprinted 59 yards to the Cavalier 20. Four plays later, Davis pushed into the end zone from two yards out. Suddenly UVA’s lead was down to three at 10-7.

Big plays have haunted UVA against Pitt the past four meetings, including last season when Darrin Hall touchdown runs of 41 and 75 yards helped the Panthers capture a 23-13 victory in Charlottesville. Losing the battle in the trenches has been a detriment as well, and in the first half on Saturday night the Panthers defensive front controlled Virginia’s offensive line, putting Perkins on the ground many times while racking up three first-half sacks and shutting down the UVA rushing game. On its final drive of the first half, Pitt started pushing around the Virginia defense, using an up-tempo pace on a 14-play, 80-yard march. Pickett finished the drive with a 3-yard touchdown pass to Tre Tipton on third-and-goal.

Coach Mendenhall stated last Monday that his team needed to be consistent in its physicality and intensity against Pittsburgh. As the first half came to an end, the Panthers seemed to have the edge in both.

“Our offensive line play has got to be stronger,” Mendenhall told ACC Network sideline reporter Katie George at halftime. “They’re winning the matchup up front.”

Virginia had won only four true road games the past three seasons prior to Saturday night. On the road, trailing to an opponent that had controlled the series the past four years, the Cavaliers showed why are worthy to be the 2019 Coastal Division favorites.

Perkins led the way, converting a 3rd-and-9 from the UVA 26 with a 17-yard pass to junior Terrell Jana and then escaping the Pitt pass-rush for a 27-yard run on 3rd and 10 from the Cavalier 43. Virginia took the opening possession of the second half 47 yards for another Delaney field goal to regain the lead, 16-14.

On Pitt’s ensuing drive, wide receiver Taysir Mack dropped an accurate long sideline pass from Pickett on 2nd-and-10. The very next play, Virginia outside linebacker Matt Gahm snatched Pickett’s pass for the first interception of his career. The Cavalier offense capitalized on the turnover with a 5-play, 29-yard touchdown-scoring drive. Perkins tossed a perfect pass across the middle to Dubois, who stretched out for the score, which boosted the Virginia lead to 23-14.

The home team drove 33 yards on its next drive before settling for an Alex Kessman 50-yard field goal attempt. Kessman, who had made six field of 50 yards or more in his career, missed. As it turned out, this would be Pitt’s best scoring opportunity the entire second-half.

The Virginia defense was outstanding most of the night and especially in the second half, when the unit surrendered just 86 yards, registered three sacks and had two interceptions. The Hoos had just one sack in first-half action. Following Kessman’s miss, Pitt’s offense finished the game with a punt, an interception and a turnover on downs before running the clock out on its final drive with the game over. Cavalier junior free safety Joey Blount was responsible for two sacks as well as the second interception, which came with 5:02 remaining.

“The defense played their butts off tonight,” Perkins told the ACC Network postgame.

Sophomore running back Wayne Taulapapa rushed 10 yards for the game’s final score with 32 seconds left. Taulapapa gained 66 yards on 10 carries while making the first start of his collegiate career. Perkins added 44 yards on 18 attempts, and junior PK Kier had 19 yards on five rushes. In total, the Cavaliers had 129 yards rushing on 33 carries while Pitt finished with 78 yards rushing on 30 carries.

Perkins completed 20-of-34 passes for 181 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions. Most importantly, he wasn’t sacked in the second half. His counterpart Pickett was 21-of-41 for 185 yards with one touchdown and an interception. Virginia’s top receiver on the night was Dubois, a senior, who had 45 yards receiving and a touchdown. Joe Reed led all receivers with a career best seven catches, while Jana totaled three catches for 29 yards.

“The whole team rallied around each other and supported each other, and that’s what I think is so great about this team,” Perkins told the ACC Network following the win. “We love each other, and when things go bad we pick each other up. The line came out and just dominated the second half and I couldn’t be more proud of those guys.”

“Our offensive staff challenge our front and they responded,” Mendenhall told Ahmad Hawkins postgame.

Special teams proved to be a big difference in favor of the Hoos, who had the punt block and three field goals. Delaney made his first three field goals before missing right on his final attempt in the fourth quarter. Nash Griffin served as UVA’s punter and had a good night, averaging 45.5 yards per punt while pinning the Panthers inside their own 20 three times.

Although the offensive line may have been slow to come around, the unit responded with a terrific second-half. Virginia received quality play in all three areas on its way to snapping a 4-game skid to Pittsburgh and showing that they can indeed close out a big game on the road.

“Yeah, there’s an extra degree of satisfaction,” Mendenhall said of taking down Pitt for the first time in four years.

The Cavaliers, who sit atop the ACC Coastal at 1-0, return to Charlottesville for its 2019 home opener against William & Mary next Friday.

Box Score
Highlights (Courtesy of ACC Digital Network)

UVA/Pitt Notes

– Inside linebacker Jordan Mack missed the entire second-half with an injury. The ACC Network crew speculated that his absence was due to a wrist injury. (Update: Per Jeff White’s report on VirginiaSports.com, Mendenhall believes Mack may have suffered a concussion.) Fellow inside linebacker Zane Zandier led the Hoos with nine tackles, including six solo efforts. Rob Snyder finished with three tackles off the bench.

– Blount, who as you can see broke the rock in the postgame celebration, was in on a lot of key plays. Although Pitt would score a touchdown several plays later, the standout junior made the touchdown-saving tackle on Davis’ 59-yard reception. He made the sack to force Pitt to attempt a Kessman field goal in the third quarter. Blount sacked Pickett the play before he picked off Pickett with 5:02 in the fourth quarter.

– Mendenhall called Taulapapa “tough,” adding: “I like who he is. I like how he plays.”

I thought Taulapapa was impressive. He ran hard and almost always moved forward. He also showed pretty good speed in my opinion. Fluid in his cuts.

– Perkins has thrown for more than one touchdown pass in 13 of 14 games at Virginia.

– Perkins and wide receiver Terrell Chatman connected on a 33-yard reception. Perkins threw a jump ball and the 6’3″ Chatman went up and grabbed it. The two were roommates/teammates at Arizona State.

– Wide receivers Dejon Brissett, Tavares Kelly Jr., and Billy Kemp did not play.

– Virginia had only three penalties in the game. The Hoos had 10 in last year’s loss to the Panthers.

– Junior safety De’Vante Cross was frequently on the field and finished with three tackles (two solo), one QB hurry and one pass breakup. Junior safety Chris Moore did not play.

– The following true freshmen participated in their first college game: Long-snapper Enzo Anthony, nose tackle Jowon Briggs (starter), wide receiver Dorien Goddard, offensive lineman Ja’Quay Hubbard, running back Mike Hollins, inside linebacker Nick Jackson and wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks.

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