Pitt's defense made things interesting early on, but in the end, the Panthers prevailed for a 45-31 win over Virginia on Saturday.
On Friday, I sort of went on a Twitter rant since I didn't quite understand the optimism some folks had regarding Virginia's chances. As I said then, Pitt could certainly lose. But nothing in the team's play this year really suggested that Virginia should win. They had some bad early losses and while they had won their past two games, they did so against teams not as good as Pitt (and, perhaps, not even very good teams at all) in Central Michigan and Duke.
Now, Pitt sort of tested that in the first half as Virginia's passing game, as we all expected, was on fire. The secondary gave up numerous big plays and it was a back and forth game. Pitt actually led at halftime, 35-28, thanks to a Jordan Whitehead pick six. But if you ask me, Virginia looked like the better team. Pitt's secondary gave up several big plays and Virginia quarterback Kurt Benkert had a strong first half.
But as I suspected they might, they had a hard time matching Pitt's offense. Aside from the opener when Pitt scored 'only' 28 points running what just about everyone insists was a scaled back offense, the team has averaged 40 points per game. Few teams will be able to match that - especially ones with weaker defenses.
Ironically, if you're looking for a difference maker today, it wasn't the offense. That would be the special teams where the Panthers dominated. Pitt pulled off (by my count, anyway) three big kick returns - one of which went the distance as Quadree Henderson took another kickoff to the house in the first half.
To me, the biggest stretch was right before the end of the first half. Pitt trailed 28-21 with under six minutes left. Kicking away from Henderson, Rafael Araujo-Lopes returned a kick back 69 yards, setting up a Pitt touchdown to tie it. On Virginia's next possession, instead of playing it safe, they tried a pass that was picked off by Whitehead on that aforementioned pick six. Within the span of a few minutes, we had a 14-point swing and, while I can't speak for them, that had to be a demoralizing thing for the Cavaliers.
From there, Pitt took over in the second half.
As much as we criticized the defense in the first half, they played pretty well in the second, allowing only three points on a late, meaningless field goal. Part of the problem in the first half was a real lack of pressure. That, um, changed.
On Virginia's first drive, Pitt sacked Benkert twice, forcing them to punt. They got another big sack on Benkert on the next drive, again forcing a punt. On the third drive, they stuffed a crucial 3rd and 1 play. They went on to force two more punts before giving up the field goal at the end.
If you want to know why the defense had much more success in the second-half, it was clearly the pressure they brought up front. We even saw James Conner on defense, something that was talked about the past two years, and he not only made an appearance there, but was a factor in forcing Benkert into an incompletion after an unbelievable spin move.
The secondary isn't good - we all know that. But when Pitt gets the pressure they need up front, they're much less of a problem. With Avonte Maddox out, Pitt also lost safety starter Terrish Webb as the injuries keep piling up. He went out of the game then returned in street clothes, so we'll see what happens there. But man, this team is getting hit with injuries every single week, it seems. Ejuan Price also missed some time.
And while the secondary again was bad, the run defense also had some big problems initially, too. Virginia led Pitt in rushing (85 yards to 77) at halftime and Taquan Mizzell accounted for most of that with 70. Mizzell was bottled up a bit early, but did have a huge 44-yard touchdown. Like I said earlier in the gamethread, if you're going to be that bad against the pass, you almost need to be lights out against the run. Pitt wound up giving up only 100 rushing yards at the end and the Panthers more than doubled that, so it got fixed.
Offensively, I was a little surprised Pitt didn't do more passing. They threw a modest 21 times despite Virginia having one of the worst pass defense in D-I (even worse than Pitt's, statistically, coming into the game). Quarterback Nathan Peterman did the job with 137 yards and two touchdowns, but this was a game I thought they might finish with more passing yards. Still, who's going to complain about that?
Finally, I thought James Conner did quite a bit today to prove he's still a star and that it's going to take some work to knock him from his perch as the top running back. He had been kind of outdone a bit by Chawntez Moss lately, but that wasn't the case today. He had 90 rushing yards with two touchdowns and some of his yards were very tough. Moss had a quiet day with seven rushes for only 26 yards (he, too, was banged up a bit on a play on special teams coverage).
Conner had one touchdown diving over the top of the line and then repeated that feat on a key 3rd down play. He also caught two passes for 28 yards and one was a very good wheel route play for a nice gain. When you factor in the pass rush on defense, too, he just sort of put the team on his back today and did what they needed done. No really huge plays for a lot of yardage from him, but a lot of key ones.
All in all, this is a really nice win. I still don't think Virginia is a great team and that they will struggle to even reach a bowl with a pretty brutal schedule down the stretch. But it was still a road win on Homecoming and, in conference, two win by 14 points is great. Pitt is now 5-2 and carries some momentum into their toughest stretch of the year with games against three ranked opponents in a row, in Virginia Tech, Clemson, Miami, and Clemson.