After an UGLY first quarter of play, the Virginia football team did what they were supposed to do and rolled to a 49-0 win over lowly VMI last Saturday. The Cavaliers gashed the Keydets for 368 yards on the ground, highlighted by a career day from freshman walk-on, Daniel Hamm.
Virginia (2-1) will open conference play this Saturday at ACC newcomer, Pittsburgh. The new league has brought about mixed results for the Panthers in their inaugural season. After getting torched by defending ACC Champion, Florida State on Labor Day, Pitt put on an offensive clinic in it's 58-55 win at Duke last Saturday.
Pittsburgh leads the all-time series against Virginia, 3-2, with three meetings taking place in the last 10 years. Virginia defeated Pitt, 23-16 in the 2003 Continental Tire Bowl, shutting down All-American wide receiver and current Arizona Cardinal, Larry Fitzgerald in the process. The two schools played a home-and-home between 2006 and 2007, with both teams walking away with double-digit wins on their home fields. Virginia and Pittsburgh will now see each other every year for the foreseeable future, with the Panthers joining the ACC Coastal Division this fall. Let's take a closer look at the 2013 version of the Pittsburgh Panthers.
The Pittsburgh offense:
Pittsburgh entered the season with major question marks in the offense backfield, with a quarterback who hasn't played in three years, and not much experience at the running back position. Those preseason fears have been put to rest for the rest, at least for the time being. Fifth year senior quarterback, Tom Savage has been a journeyman throughout his college years. Savage began his career at Rutgers, leading the Scarlet Knights to a 9-4 record his freshman year. The Springfield Pennsylvania native transferred to Arizona following his sophomore season, only to leave the Wildcats months later, after the school hired Rich Rodriguez. Savage spent last year learning head coach, Paul Chryt's offense, before assuming the starting role this fall.
In his first three games as a starter, Savage has thrown for 861 yards, and nine touchdowns, whole only tossing four interceptions. Savage picked on a weak Duke secondary last week, completing 23 of 33 passes for 424 yards, and six touchdowns. Unlike BYU's Taysom Hill and Oregon's Marcus Mariota, Savage is a traditional quarterback who will sit back in the pocket and beat you with his strong arm. The Virginia defense is ranked second nationally in pass efficiently defense and will need to put pressure on Savage to prevent him from finding one of his talented receivers downfield.
Chryst helped build the Wisconsin program on the power-running game while he was the offensive coordinator, and has brought that same identity to Pittsburgh. Freshman tailback, James Conner is a load to bring down at 6-2, 230 pounds. After only carrying the ball nine times in the season opener against Florida State, Conner has become the workhorse in the offensive backfield. The freshman has eclipsed the century-mark in the last two games, including a 173-yard performance against the Blue Devils last Saturday. Conner has a knack for breaking tackles to turn short gains into bigger ones, and the Virginia defense can ill afford to not wrap up against the big ‘back. Isaac Bennett is listed as the starting running back, and has rushed 35 times for 174 yards and two scores on the young season. Bennett is a smaller and quicker ball carrier, at 5-11, 205 pounds. Conner and Bennett make up the bulk of the running game, with only one other ‘back registering six carries. Pitt will occasionally call a wide receiver reverse to get one of their talented wideouts the ball in space.
Speaking of the Pitt wide receivers, the Cavs will likely not see a better pair of wideouts than Pitt's Devin Street and Tyler Boyd. Street is chasing down several school records with 168 career receptions, 2,434 yards, and 11 touchdowns. The senior needs only 11 more catches to become the Panthers' all time leader in receptions. This season, Street has hauled in 17 passes for 387 yards, and two touchdowns. At 6-4, 190 pounds, Street is a matchup nightmare for smaller defensive backs. On the opposite side, Boyd arrived in Pitt with great fanfare after committing to the Panthers on national television, during the Army All-American Bowl, and has lived up to the hype so far. The former four-star wideout has brought in 16 catches for 214 yards and four touchdowns in his first three games as a Panther. Street and Boyd are homerun threats, as both dynamic playmakers have hauled in touchdowns from further than 65 yards out. While much of the attention will be on Boyd and Street, 5-10 Kevin Weatherspoon is an option out of the slot.
The Panthers have a pair of capable tight ends, in Manasseh Garner and Scott Orndoff. Orndoff's only two catches this year have been touchdowns.
Pitt represents the first conventional offense that the Cavs have seen all season. The Panthers like to keep the ball on the ground in order to setup a big play over-the-top for Street or Boyd. The offensive line has allowed Savage plenty of time to throw, giving up just four sacks in the first three games.
The Pittsburgh defense:
The Pittsburgh ‘D' has been under a lot of scrutiny, after surrendering 55 points to Duke last week. The Panthers represent the first Cavalier foe this season to run a 4-3 defense. With the exception of Maryland, the rest of the opponents on Virginia's schedule lineup in a 4-3, and it will be important for the Cavs to get used to playing against four-man front.
The Panthers are led in the middle by stout defensive tackle, Aaron Donald. The 6-0, 285 pound senior is among the leaders nationally in tackles for loss (2.33 per game) and sacks (1.33 per contest.) Donald and fellow defensive tackle, Tyrone Ezell, will be a tough matchup for the Virginia interior line, who will be without usual starter, Conner Davis at right guard. Redshirt juniors, David Durham, and Bryan Murphy round out the line on the outside. Depth is now a concern at defensive end, as the school announced on Thursday that backup, Devin Cooke will miss the remainder of the season with an ACL injury.
The injury bug has also plagued the linebacker corps, as starting middle linebacker, Shane Gordon's status is unknown for Saturday's game. If Gordon cannot go, freshman Matt Galambos is next in the line. Whoever lines up in the middle will be assisted by a pair of juniors on the outside, in Anthony Gonzales and Todd Thomas.
Pitt's starting safeties are the teams two leading tacklers, with strong safety, Jason Hendricks recording 25 tackles, and free safety, Ray Vinopal totaling 23 stops on the year so far. Senior cornerback, K'Waun Williams has played in 38 games in Panther uniform. Sophomore, Lafayette Pitts plays opposite Williams at cornerback. Though the Pitt secondary has plenty of experience, the Panthers are allowing 251 yards through the air per game, good enough for 83rd nationally.
The Pittsburgh head coach:
Chryst has finally brought stability to the Pitt head coaching position, which has been nothing short of tumultuous over the past four years . The Panthers canned Dave Wannstedt following a 7-5 campaign in 2010. The school hired former Miami of Ohio head coach Mike Haywood, only to fire him eight days later, after domestic assault charges were filled against the short-lived head coach. The Panthers would then hire former Tulsa head coach, Todd Graham, only to see him bolt for Arizona State after the 2011 season. Chryst is in his second year with Pitt, compiling a record of 8-8. Prior to arriving in the Steel City, Chryst served as the offensive coordinator at Wisconsin from 2005-11. The former Badger coached two separate stints at Wisconsin and Oregon State between 1997 and 2005. Chryst served as the tight ends coach for the San Diego Chargers from 1999-2001, and has spent time calling plays for several CFL teams and FCS programs.
Pitt's key to victory:
The Panthers will need to protect Savage and keep his jersey clean. The senior had a career day at Duke last week, because he had plenty of time to get rid of the ball. Virginia's pressure defense will be coming hard after Savage in order to prevent the offense from getting the long ball going.
Virginia's key to victory:
The Cavaliers need to create some momentum early. The opening quarter struggles against BYU and Oregon were understandable, but the first 15 minutes of the VMI game were flat-out scary if you are a Virginia fan UVa has not scored in the first quarter of a game, since defeating Miami, 41-40 back on November 10th, 2012. With a young team playing it's first game away from home, Virginia cannot afford to play from behind on Saturday.
The bottom line:
We are three games into the season, and there is still a lot that we don't know about this Virginia football team. The Cavs have played in two complete blowouts, and two of UVa's first three games have been in the pouring rain. A lot of questions should be answered this week as the Cavaliers will take on an opponent with a similar skillset, in Pittsburgh. It will be Pitt's high-powered offense, going up against Virginia's stingy defense. ACC wins will be tough to come by this season, with not much separating teams in the Coastal Division. Three of Virginia's next four games will be in the friendly confines of Scott Stadium, and the Cavaliers could put themselves in excellent position to qualify for a bowl game, and more if they can steal this one at Heinz Field.
Virginia will be looking to win it's first ACC opener of the Mike London era, as the Cavaliers travel to Pittsburgh on Saturday for a 12:30 p.m. kickoff.