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Pitt vs. Virginia Preview: Q&A with Streaking the Lawn

Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

Pitt has an important ACC matchup this weekend with Virginia on the schedule. Caroline Darney from SB Nation's Cavaliers blog, Streaking the Lawn, stopped by to answer some questions in advance of the game. See my questions and her answers below:

After a slow start, Virginia has begun to play well lately. What did they do differently in the wins against Duke and Central Michigan than they did in the losses to UConn and Richmond?

Man, they feel like a completely different team. From attitude to on-field play/personnel, it's like night and day from the early losses to the last couple weeks. Offensively, the line has provided more pass protection while QB Kurt Benkert has gotten more comfortable in the passing game. Defensively, injuries have been a problem (especially in the secondary), but young players like Jordan Mack, Bryce Hall, and Juan Thornhill have been fantastic the last two games. Additionally, senior leaders have been present on (Micah Kiser, Donte Wilkins) and off (Matt Johns) the field.

It just seems that they have the confidence/ability to pull off the big play when needed.  Against Central Michigan, it was the offense answering with an 82 yard touchdown after the Chippewas tied the score at 28. Against Duke, Kiser got a huge 4th down stop to halt an offensive drive, and the defense stepped up again with Mack demolishing Jones in the endzone for the pivotal forced sack-touchdown combo that gave the Hoos some breathing room and a 14 point lead.

Virginia's passing game is putting a lot of fear into Pitt fans as the Panthers' secondary has been torched quite a bit this year. Tell us a little about quarterback Kurt Benkert.

Kurt Benkert is the best quarterback at UVA since Matt Schaub. It has been awhile since Virginia fans have had a consistent, true, system QB. In our two wins, he is 50 of 84 (60%) passing for 757 yards, eight touchdowns, and two interceptions. Not only is he getting more time with the ball, he's getting more comfortable with broken plays. In both the CMU and Duke games, Benkert completed an 80+ yard play...both of which came after he had to scramble.

I also like that there's no real "favorite" receiver. Olamide Zaccheaus leads the team with 340 yards receiving and four touchdowns, but 11 different receivers caught a pass against Duke. Of Virginia's 13 receiving touchdowns on the season, eight different players have caught at least one with only Zaccheaus and Keeon Johnson (3) having more than one. He has options and he trusts his receivers.

What's the take on new coach Bronco Mendenhall? Do fans think he's a long-term answer or are there concerns about how his coaching/recruiting will translate on the other side of the country in a completely new environment?

I won't presume to speak for all Virginia fans because generally they can be a much more pessimistic bunch than myself, but I think he's a long-term answer. It's clear that the players respond to the challenges he presents to them, and I am a fan of the "nothing given" mentality. He's currently working with guys that weren't picked for his schemes, and is reacting and building with the pieces he has in front of him.

After the Richmond game, it brought a lot of us back to reality that this team has A LOT of work to do, but seeing the week to week improvements has been awesome. I think recruiting wise, he has a lot more options than before with the limitations that naturally come with coaching at BYU. His staff is young, personable, and having guys like Ruffin McNeill and Hagans creates an immediate connection to some east coast recruiting spots.

I think a lot of us see Coach Mendenhall as the football version of Tony Bennett. It'll take time to get the right pieces and the right scheme instilled, but once you do, you'll see sustainable success.

Virginia's schedule gets extremely tough down the stretch with games against Louisville, Miami, North Carolina, and Virginia Tech all still to come. What are the realistic expectations for this team going forward?

Woof. It's definitely a difficult schedule. It's good to have Pitt, UNC, Louisville, and Miami in Charlottesville to give us back a modicum of the advantage, but I'd be happy if we can figure out a way to take two of those games. Right now, realistically, making a bowl game will be very hard, but until it's mathematically impossible I still have faith (see, optimistic). Road games at Wake and Georgia Tech lessen the blow slightly (especially now that the 17-straight road loss monkey is off our backs), and if Coach Mendenhall can go into Blacksburg and deliver a win, I'm ready to crowd fund the statue we'll put up outside Scott Stadium.

I think that Virginia misses a bowl game this year, but sets themselves up for one next season. I do, however, think we can get to five wins.

Virginia's defense has had some issues this year in both stopping the run and the pass. What are some areas where the Panthers can take advantage when they have the ball?

This one is tough to answer because Pitt has a lot of weapons both on the ground and with Nate Peterman passing. The defense has improved, but has still struggled with forcing stops. Against Duke they were pretty dang good when you consider they got two fourth down stops, a strip sack for a TD, and five interceptions, but Duke still put up 430 yards of offense (326 in the air). I would say the air attack is where Virginia is still most susceptible. The defense has been simplified from Coach Mendenhall's usual 3-4, which has helped the guys with assignments and execution, but it still has a lot of work to do.

Give us a prediction for the game.

Homecomings, using momentum from the last couple weeks...I say the Cavaliers win in a shootout 41-31. David Eldridge will be big on the long balls, and Benkert will have a good day passing. Exciting throughout.