The Virginia football team made a lot of strides over the first three years of the Bronco Mendenhall era, but the 2019 season opener brought an opportunity to do something new: beat Pitt. The Hoos had yet to defeat Pittsburgh with coach Pat Narduzzi in charge, but they snapped a four-game losing streak against the Panthers with a 30-14 win Saturday night .
The Cavaliers played a clean game to secure a road win for the fourth straight season. They committed just 3 penalties and committed 0 turnovers. The victory gives UVA an early leg up in the Coastal Division, which got off to a rough start to open the season. Virginia and North Carolina are the only two teams that got a win in their opener.
There’s a long season ahead, but here are 10 quick thoughts about the first victory of the season.
1. An important win.
This was a huge victory for the team. Obviously it was good for the Coastal Division race, but forget about that for a minute. Getting this win on the road to open the season was big because it means the team didn’t lose part of the fan base right off the bat. When the team openly said it was dropping the ‘new’ label and going with “The Standard” as its catch phrase, when the team embraced the preseason Coastal favorite label, when the team said it got out-toughed by Pitt’s physical play in previous years, when the team lost its last three ACC games last year and let two close road chances get away … when all of that was in the mind of some fans, a loss in the opener at Pitt in what was clearly a winnable game would have really deflated the outlook for many outsiders.
Instead, the Hoos produced a double-digit win against the previous year’s division winner. They did it with a superb second half response when Pittsburgh provided some adversity by taking the lead just ahead of halftime. All in all, this win to start the season kept momentum building in the right direction.
2. We saw one thing that most expected.
Opposing offenses might not want any part of Bryce Hall this season. Pittsburgh spent much of the night far away from Hall’s coverage. He still made his presence felt with 6 tackles that included a sack on a corner blitz. On the sack, it looked like Pitt QB Kenny Pickett never really saw Hall because he stepped up in the pocket right into the rush lane that Hall was in to help cause the sack. But how could he see Hall? He spent most of the night looking anywhere but there.
A bubble screen early went that way, but Hall was all over it (the pass wasn’t complete anyway, but Hall was right there). Late, Hall completely blew his assignment on an interchange between Pitt receivers but with Tre Tipton well behind the defense, Hall recovered to break up the deep pass. There were at least two obvious occasions where the Panthers went right at the other starting corner Nick Grant on a deep shot, but both passes fell incomplete. It looked like UVA’s safety rolled over the top to help on both of those. Grant finished with 5 tackles.
3. Spread the wealth.
Bryce Perkins said early in the week that Virginia had a lot of weapons among the receiving corps and he got a lot of those players involved Saturday. Seven different Hoos caught a pass in the game. Hasise Dubois and Joe Reed led the way as they combined for 11 receptions, but Perkins connected with Terrell Chatman, Terrell Jana, Tanner Cowley, Chris Sharp, and Wayne Taulapapa too. Reed had a career-high 7 catches. Perkins threw multiple touchdown passes for the 13th time in 14 games at UVA. He finished 20-of-34 passing for 181 yards and 2 TDs. (Of note, Mendenhall said that Tavares Kelly and Billy Kemp were suspended for this game and did not make the trip so that’s two other potential targets that weren’t in action; Richmond transfer Dejon Brissett also didn’t play – he’s been working his way back from an offseason surgery.)
4. 2-4-5 still alive.
One of the preseason storylines for the team was the reboot of the defensive line where increased depth and experience figured to boost that unit. The Cavaliers did rotate in five linemen during the game with Richard Burney, Jowon Briggs, and Eli Hanback getting the start, while Mandy Alonso and Aaron Faumui played a lot too. The unit recorded 6 tackles in the game.
Even with additional depth available, the Wahoos turned back one of their favorite sub defense alignments a lot in this game: the 2-4-5 look. That cycled a defensive lineman out of the game a lot of the time. The game situation appeared to, at least partially, dictate that choice. Pitt played a lot of the night from behind on the scoreboard and new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple seemed to have a heavy pass attack in the plans anyway. Plus, the Panthers simply had trouble running the ball consistently in the game. They finished with 78 yards on 30 carries for a 2.6 yards per carry average. Of those 30 rushes, 12 came from Pickett at quarterback and many of those were scramble plays out of pass calls. With that approach on the menu, it made sense for UVA to counter with the sub package.
5. The offensive line stabilized, but it’s a work in progress.
The Cavaliers started Ryan Swoboda, Ryan Nelson, Olusegun Oluwatimi, Chris Glaser, and Dillon Reinkensmeyer on the offensive line, moving from left to right. That’s the fourth different spot Reinkensmeyer has started at in his career – he needs left guard to complete the cycle.
Mendenhall had mentioned some minor injuries disrupting continuity late in the preseason so maybe that was a contributing factor, but for stretches of the game, particularly in the first half, the Hoos couldn’t get the push or protection they wanted up front. That led to some shuffling up front to try to get a combination that could hold its own against the Pitt defense. Eventually, they settled on Bobby Haskins, Nelson, Oluwatimi, Glaser, and Reinkensmeyer for chunks of the second half and that helped stabilize things. Mendenhall noted in his postgame interview on the ACC Network that the assignments and execution improved in the second half on the offensive line.
6. Rush lanes need work, but it tightened up.
As mentioned above, Pickett accounted for 40% of Pitt’s carries in the game and at least some those carries opened up due to UVA’s rush lane integrity. There were numerous plays where the Hoos lost track of positioning and left giant gaps that allowed Pickett to break contain. He gained 44 yards on his carries, but his production was negated by 4 Virginia sacks.
Pickett gained 36 of those 44 yards in the second and third quarter when some of those lanes were opening. By the end of the game, however, Virginia had cleaned up the issue and sealed the escape alleys more effectively. This is an area to monitor because Pickett isn’t the running threat that some other QBs on the schedule might be in the coming weeks.
7. Safety rotation.
The Cavaliers rotated three safeties throughout the game. Brenton Nelson and De’Vante Cross started the game, while Joey Blount rotated in. All three players were on the field in the 2-4-5 alignment discussed above. In those scenarios, Nelson rotated down and played a nickel back corner type of role.
The arrangement worked well. The trio combined for 17 tackles. Nelson and Blount notched 7 each, while Cross added 3. Nelson just missed a sack on a blitz, while Blount came through with 2 sacks and interception. Those was Blount’s first career sacks. One sack and the interception came on consecutive plays in the fourth quarter. Blount was chosen to break the rock after the game.
8. Taulapapa looked solid.
Virginia came into the game without a clear picture at running back. Mendenhall said earlier in the week, all of the running backs listed on the depth chart would play and who emerged with production would materialize during the game. All the backs did get into action, but Wayne Taulapapa ended up the most used back. He posted 10 carries for 66 yards a touchdown. Mendenhall called Taulapapa the most consistent of the backs during the preseason and that’s how he ended up starting.
Of note, Mendenhall also had said that Taulapapa and Lamont Atkins were the most versatile backs, which took into account blocking as well. In a game where the plan called for 34 passes, including a fairly pass-heavy attack in the early going, it wasn’t surprising to see those two players on the field for many of those situations.
9. Delaney and more.
The kicking phase of the game opened the season on a mostly good note with Brian Delaney handling the kicking and Nash Griffin doing the punting. Delaney matched his career high with three made field goals. He connected from 39, 36, and 45 yards before just missing a 40-yarder in the final five minutes. Delaney’s kicks in the first quarter helped half helped the Hoos get some points on the board when a couple of opportunities fell short of the end zone. The make from 45 yards was one yard shy of his career best. Delaney also put 4 of 7 kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks, but he did hit one out of bounds too.
Griffin performed well in his punting debut. He averaged 45.5 yards per punt on 4 attempts with 3 of those kicks going inside the 20. He booted a 49-yarder for his long kick of the night. More importantly, UVA allowed just one punt return and allowed no yards on that attempt.
There are a couple other special teams notes to mention. Both long snappers got into the game. Enzo Anthony and Lee Dudley both made their college debut in that spot. Noah Taylor blocked a punt, the team’s first since Charles Snowden got one at Miami in 2017. Taylor’s block was a polite one where he sort of reached around the defense and got a hand on the ball vs. a full diving stuff at the punter’s feet. Here it is:
10. Quick hitters to finish.
Hasise Dubois had a good night other than a fumble (it fortunately went out of bounds). He continued his consistency with 4 catches, scored a touchdown, and recovered the block punt. … Wayne Taulapapa had one catch. A swing style pass to No. 21? That looks familiar. … Matt Gahm’s interception fired up the defense and set up the touchdown that provided a two-score cushion. He made a smooth catch on the run by the way. … Zane Zandier led the team in tackles playing in a game about 12 miles from his high school. … Brenton Nelson seemed to have a really good outing to me. … Chris Sharp’s touchdown catch looked like a bread-and-butter red zone play. … QB Brennan Armstrong played on special teams.