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Pitt knocks off No. 25 Virginia, 23-13, to take Coastal Division lead

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Both Pitt and Virginia controlled their own destiny in terms of trying to win the ACC Coastal Division coming into tonight. Only one team left that way and it was the Panthers, which won the contest, 23-13. That isn’t too far off from the 23-20 score I called in the Q&A with SB Nation’s Virginia blog, Streaking the Lawn.

Coming into this one, as I said in that Q&A, I just wasn’t sure how great Virginia really was. I felt Pitt was a pretty mediocre team and wasn’t convinced that Virginia wasn’t equally mediocre, despite the lofty Top 25 ranking and 6-2 record. Who a team plays matters and, well, they haven’t really played anyone outside of Miami.

Now, this is not about piling on at all. That’s not really what this blog is about and I’m not the kind of guy to kick a team when a team is down — well, not unless that team is from north central Pennsylvania or Morgantown. But I was not real impressed with Virginia and they did not look good. That’s important because I expected the opposite, frankly. I figured that if Pitt won, Virginia would still look pretty solid just because I’m not all that sold on Pitt, either. I don’t know that Virginia is quite as bad as they looked tonight, particularly on offense. The field was a mess and such. But, man, that was a pretty uninspiring game by them in a Friday night game at home where you’ve got the attention of the entire nation. They just looked flat as flat can be.

The flipside is that Pitt played a very strong game. No, they didn’t score a ton of points. But they scored enough to win and that’s because the defense was very good.

I guess they weren’t absolutely lights out but to hold them to 13 points and 249 total yards, I mean, you’re just not going to do much better than that. If you’re grading that unit, that’s an ‘A’ game. The ups and downs from that unit are frustrating and that strong performance came after a dumpster fire outing against Duke last weekend. Which is the real defense? Well, I expect it’s somewhere in between. I do think the poor weather helped them a little because Virginia really had trouble getting anything going on offense and the weather, as it did for Pitt’s offense, played into that.

The offense that Pitt got was almost entirely on the ground. Kenny Pickett was 7-14 for ... 61 yards. That isn’t a typo. Now, again, the conditions were not great. But Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins still managed 205 yards and, certainly no offense to him, he isn’t exactly Tom Brady. No Pitt receiver caught more than one pass and I’m not quite sure I’ve ever seen that before.

Look, the passing game isn’t going to suddenly blossom overnight and that’s one of the reasons I have a real hard time with thinking this team is going to surprise me and win a Division. You can win a Division without passing the ball great but when you’re barely cracking 60 yards, that’s just a special kind of one-sidedness on offense.

The good news for Pitt is that, they’ve been running the ball incredibly well. That had been mostly due to Qadree Ollison this season but tonight, it was Darrin Hall’s turn. Ollison did play but was clearly hobbled with an injury. Hall picked up the slack and then some with 229 rushing yards and all three of Pitt’s touchdowns.

The bigger picture is that Pitt is just sticking to a really effective game plan and the players are executing it. Can Pickett throw the ball a bit more? Yes, I believe so. But the team’s strength is on the ground and that’s important because it accomplishes a few goals. They move the sticks, they take the pressure off of Pickett, and they keep opposing offenses off the field. If Pitt runs the ball effectively, they can compete against most teams, I imagine.

Look, I don’t know that Ollison and Hall can really carry this team to a Division title. But I remain astonished at how effective they are when teams know what’s coming. The idea that this team can’t throw isn’t lost on anyone so the game plan is pretty simple. But those guys aren’t only continuing to thrive despite that, they’re putting the entire offense on their backs. Those two are men and if you’re a defensive unit trying to stop them, you’re going to have your hands full. Watching the two work their magic is just a lot of fun.

From the players’ standpoint, kicker Alex Kessman absolutely deserves a nod, too. He has been insane this year and hit another ridiculous kick in bad conditions tonight, nailing a 53-yard field goal. His leg is just a really strong weapon and, while that would be important, anyway, it’s even more so because the offense isn’t out there scoring a ton of points. His field goal tonight basically put the game out of reach as it gave Pitt the 10-point lead late.

That kid looks very much like an NFL kicker and, assuming he stays all four years, Pitt will have him for two years after this. That’s basically an ace up their sleeve and when you play close games, it’s a tremendous advantage.

Meanwhile, I wanted to devote some time something I generally don’t talk about - and that’s the officiating. I have a feeling this is going to take some time, so bear with me.

Pitt got some help from Virginia, which had ten penalties. However, the Panthers themselves were absolutely crushed with an embarrassing targeting call just before halftime. Unless a penalty is particularly egregious, I don’t typically linger too much on them. But Patrick Jones was called for one of the most ridiculous targeting calls you’ll ever see and no recap of this game would be complete without addressing it. You’ve surely seen it but if you haven’t, no description will do it justice. You’ve simply got to find the footage and see it for yourself.

Safe to say, he wasn’t happy.

The problem was three-fold. First, it gave Virginia 15 yards on a penalty and was near the end of the half. That made what would have been about a 45-yard field goal attempt one that was about 30, which the Cavaliers made, to take a lead. Second, the Panthers lost a great player for the rest of the game. Keep in mind that Jones’ loss was not minor as the team was already without defensive lineman Keyshon Camp, who is out for the season, as announced this week. Finally, it probably also made Pitt a little more tentative in rushing the passer. There was one play where Damar Hamlin was coming in to make a stop on the scrambling Virginia quarterback and sort of tried to grab him with his arms. It just looked a little odd and he was unsuccessful in stopping him from the first down, if I recall correctly.

I made this point on Twitter but the real problem I’ve had with the targeting calls this year is that the referees have seemed to lean towards calling them instead of not calling them. That’s a problem. A targeting call should only be used in cases where it’s an absolute no-brainer. It was clearly not that as the officials took quite a bit of time trying to determine whether or not to call it. Instead of gravitating to calling it, I really only want that play called if it’s a no-doubt-about-it type of call.

Now, to make that call is bad enough. However, to do it in these circumstances where both teams controlled their own destiny and are trying to win a Division title was flat out ridiculous. As an official, to make that call and potentially impact the fate of the Division is just inexcusable and something should be done about it. Fortunately, it did not affect the outcome but in absolutely could have and that simply cannot happen.

And while it also didn’t impact things, either, the refs made another hypersensitive call by flagging Damarri Mathis late in the game for a celebration penalty after he defended a long pass to essentially end the game. Mathis, no doubt, was very pleased with himself. But if you watch when he was flagged, the ref could not get the flag out of his pocket fast enough as Mathis was standing there nodding his head with his arms crossed.

It’s just silly and altogether unnecessary. The ACC should be flat out embarrassed by this crew tonight. Referees should never be looking to elevate themselves above the game and they were very much a focal point tonight. No, it wasn’t a one-way deal by any means as Virginia had a ton of penalties. And to make the argument that these guys are out to get Pitt is dumb. But my goodness, this game is too important and that’s how you’re going to call it? It was a joke on so many levels.

So, that said, happy stuff.

Pitt is now 5-4 and, far more importantly, 4-1 in the conference. With second-place Virginia Tech at 3-1, the Panthers are legitimately leading the Coastal as of this very minute. Now, there is still much work to be done and the Panthers face what were probably considered the Division’s top two favorites coming into the season in Virginia Tech and Miami. Neither game will be that easy but Pitt will be helped by the fact that those two teams still have to play each other. What’s that mean? Well, it could mean that the Panthers still might be able to win the Division without winning out, depending on who they would lose to.

With three conference games left, it doesn’t make a ton of sense to try to sketch out hypotheticals yet because a lot of things can still happen. But we’re now to the point where Pitt fans should absolutely be rooting hard against Virginia Tech and Miami. Any losses by those teams will be huge for the Panthers and provide some degree of breathing room.

And, of course, if Pitt wants to make it easy on themselves, they can do so by winning out.

Next up is a huge game against Virginia Tech next weekend at home. Really nice win tonight and a great start to the weekend.

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