After a few weeks of games that haven’t really told the Wahoos what kind of team they have this season, we start a stretch of games that will define the season. It was not a mystery that the Cavs were going to get throttled by Oregon, and subsequently do the same thing to VMI, but Pittsburgh poses as very interesting situation. First off, this is one of our 4 road games of the year and our first ACC game of the season. Secondly, the Panthers and the Cavaliers were picked to finish about the same in the Coastal Division in the Preseason. Lastly, in a shear numbers look at the season, if we are to go bowling this year, this would be a solid addition to a resume if we can get the victory. So what are we in store for this week?
Overall, the Hoos are 2-3 lifetime against the Panthers, but in the last 10 years, Virginia is 2-1. In 2003, Virginia ended Larry Fitzgerald’s consecutive touchdown streak in a 23-16 win in the Continental Tire/Meineke/Belk Bowl. In 2006, Pittsburgh took it to the Hoos in the season opener behind Tyler Palko’s 3 touchdown passes and won 38-13. In the last meeting, Pitt came to Charlottesville and Virginia dominated by throwing 3 first-quarter touchdowns and followed it up with 2 Peerman touchdowns to win 44-14.
The Panthers are 2-1 on the season. After losing the ACC Opening game 41-13 to Florida State, they beat both New Mexico 49-27 and a crazy game in Durham 58-55 to Duke.
For the first time this season, Virginia will face a team that will work out of a ‘Power I’, with 2 TEs and a single tailback. Running the offense is the often-traveled Tom Savage. The then-Rugters-then-Arizona-now-Pittsburgh quarterback has had a decent start to the season, completing 65% of his passes for 861 yards, 9 TDs, and 4 INTs. His two big targets this year have been his very athletic, deep play receivers Devin Street (387 yards, 2 TDs) and Tyler Boyd (314 yards, 4 TDs). The Panthers also have two very capable running backs as well, with James Conner (326 yards, 3 TDs) and Isaac Bennett (174 yards, 2 TDs). Bottom line is they will mix up the play calling and try to get the Hoos out of sync.
This will be the second straight week of seeing a 4-3 with a nose tackle. While they have been tested by New Mexico and Duke, two subpar offenses, they are getting behind the line of scrimmage and making plays. They have 6 sacks on the season and 23 tackles-for-loss, lead by DT Aaron Donald (10 tackles, 7 TFLs, 4 sacks) and LB Todd Thomas (18 tackles, 3 TFL). The safety position is manned by the leading tacklers on the team, Jason Hendricks (25 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 INT) and Ray Vinopal (23 tackles).
Keys To Victory
1. Keep the D Going. I know it is just 3 games, but the defense has done a great job in 3 specific areas of defense: passing defensive efficiency, 3-and-outs, and 3rd down defense. Getting the Panthers into passing downs on 3rd down has allowed Tenuta to bring pressure and rush the quarterbacks into bad passes.
2. Outside and Long. Not to beat the dead horse, but the run up the middle, screen pass quasi-offense didn’t work on VMI early in the game when they were fresh, and they are not a good FCS team. What has been working is off-tackle running and passing more than 8 yards down the field. I know you have to mix it up a little more than that, but we can’t just keep trying to prove a point at the sake of downs.
3. Find a way to force turnovers. Virginia is still -5 on the season in turnovers, and had no fumbles or interceptions against VMI. With the offense output Pitt is capable of, the Hoos can’t win if they can’t have a few short fields caused by turnovers.
This game could not be more of a toss up, even if Vegas doesn’t think so. The current line is Virginia +5, and the StatFox backs that up. Pitt’s offensive output the past two games has given them the statistical advantage, and that is where Virginia needs to concentrate their game play. If the Hoos D can control the offensive and the line of scrimmage, they should be able to score enough points to win, provided that they can snap out of their offensive funk. Otherwise, 5 points will come and go early in the game. Prediction: Pittsburgh 27, Virginia 21.