The Virginia football team entered the weekend with hopes of a home win and an improbable stretch run to claim bowl eligibility. Those hopes vanished in 16 seconds.
On UVA’s first two offensive plays of the game, Pittsburgh intercepted Brennan Armstrong passes and sprinted up the visiting sidelines for touchdowns. With 14:44 on the clock, the Panthers led 14-0 and the game was effectively over as the Hoos never mounted any sort of offense to threaten a comeback. Pitt eventually won 37-7 as it continued to dominate the series with victories in six of the last seven meetings.
With the loss, Virginia bowed out of the bowl picture and guaranteed that Tony Elliott’s debut season would end with a losing record. The Cavaliers are 3-7 with two games to play against Coastal Carolina and Virginia Tech.
“We knew it was gonna be a challenge and they [Pitt] did a good job and they showed up with the right mindset and ready to play, and I didn’t do a good job of having our guys have the right mindset,” said Elliott, whose team – or at least the offense – seemed unprepared and uninterested in terms of emotionally or mentally being ready to play. “[Having them] understand the matchup that we had, the physicality that it was going to take, the intensity and enthusiasm that we needed to start the game with. So, it’s not on the players, it’s on me to make sure that I fully articulate and have them prepared to be able to play in a game like this.”
The offense, in particular, looked overmatched and uncertain against Pitt’s defense, which entered the game ranked 23rd nationally in total defense and tied for 10th nationally in sacks with 29 on the season. The Panthers easily improved on those already strong numbers with their performance in Scott Stadium.
Pitt set the tone with those two quick pick-6’s, which was only the fifth time ever that a UVA opponent returned two interceptions for a scores in a single game. Oddly enough, Pittsburgh has done it twice with 2022 joining 2006 on the list. But the Panthers never let up after those first two plays either. They tallied 8 sacks, the most against UVA since Notre Dame put up the same number in 2019.
Virginia finished with only 144 total yards of offense and really only mustered two or three productive drives in reality. Of the Hoos’ 13 possessions, they gained more than 20 yards on only two. That included a drive late in the second quarter that ended in a missed field goal and the only scoring drive of the day, which covered 75 yards. Malachi Fields capped that one with his first career touchdown catch as he returned from a preseason injury for the first time.
Fields led UVA with 5 catches for 58 yards, while Billy Kemp IV added 4 catches for 38 yards. Sean Wilson had 3 catches for 25 yards. Mike Hollins was the leading rusher with 23 yards on 8 carries. The offense’s general struggles led to multiple opportunities for punter Daniel Sparks. He had career-highs in punts (8) and punt yards (409) with two punts of 60-plus yards. Only two other Cavaliers in history have had two punts of 60+ yards in the same game – Hunter Richards in 1968 and Will Brice in 1994.
The story of the day, though, was the play of Armstrong. The two interceptions essentially decided the game, but he struggled with accuracy all day as he completed just 17 of 33 passes for 152 yards. With the high sack count, he obviously spent most of the day under pressure and could never get comfortable. The throw to Fields in the back corner of the end zone for a touchdown was his best of the day.
Virginia coaches said after the game that they never considered a quarterback switch. There could be a redshirt preservation option in play for backup Jay Woolfolk as he sits at four games played currently. Senior linebacker Nick Jackson said the players have not wavered in their support of the school’s record-setting QB despite some of the struggles.
“Brennan is an unbelievable player. … He owns almost every record here,” Jackson said. “So I mean, shoot, he came back for us, you know what I’m saying. He didn’t have to come back. He’s a fighter. Everyone in that locker room, we’re behind 5. We love 5. That’s the bottom line.”
Jackson and his defensive teammates had yet to see the field when the two interceptions created a 14-0 hole, but Pitt’s offense ended its first two drives the same way as its defense: with touchdowns.
Every play but one on the Panthers’ first drive produced positive yardage with runs of 5, 5, 4, 3, and 8 yards bracketed around a single 37-yard completion to Bub Means. Israel Abanikanda finished it off with a 1-yard touchdown run as the visitors covered 63 yards on 8 plays. After a Virginia punt, the Panthers created a duplicate drive to score again, this time going 62 yards on 8 plays. This one featured runs of 3, 1, and 5 yards plus completions of 17 and 5 yards before Means hauled in a 31-yard touchdown catch around two defenders for the scoring play.
Just like that, the Hoos trailed 28-0 in the first quarter and the rest of the day was an exercise in passing time. UVA had only given up 28 points in the first quarter one other time in its history. Maryland did it in 1959.
Means recorded 3 catches for 90 yards, while Konata Mumpfield added 7 for 60. Quarterback Kedon Slovis completed 14 of 24 passes for 208 yards and the 1 touchdown. Abanikanda posted 24 carries for 124 yards.
Antonio Clary led UVA with 13 tackles, while Coen King and Jackson added 11 stops each. Langston Long added 7 tackles, while Fentrell Cypress II had 6 tackles with 2 pass breakups. Anthony Johnson also had a pass breakup. Cypress (14) and Johnson (12) are the first UVA defensive backs to each record 12 or more pass breakups in a season since 1995 when Percy Ellsworth and Joe Crocker each had a dozen. For Jackson, it pushed him past 100 tackles for the third straight season. He’s up to 104 this season and has moved into an 11th place tie on the Virginia all-time list with Stuart Anderson. Jackson matched Anderson’s 354 tackles with Saturday’s performance.
Virginia adjusted or at least held on for field goals after that initial scoring blitz. Ben Sauls went 3 of 4 on field goals with all the makes coming in the second half to get to the final margin, but Pitt clearly was in game management mode by that point.
“In college football, both teams are going to make some plays,” Cavalier defensive coordinator John Rudzinski said. “Our guys did a nice job of fighting. … We won’t be the only team in college football to give up a first series touchdown. It’s the same across the country. You’ve got to be able to respond and I know the young men on defense are excited for the opportunity and challenge coming here next week.”