Game Preview: UVA football faces Pitt, looks for second ACC win

virginia footballYou almost don’t want the bye week when you have things going as well as they were for UVA football.

After an 0-3 start, the Cavs (2-3, 1-0 ACC) beat Central Michigan, 49-35, then broke a 17-game road losing streak in a 34-20 win at Duke two weeks ago.

Byes come when they come, and this one came just as Virginia was hitting its stride.

Coach Bronco Mendenhall felt like his team had a good week away from game prep.

“Hard to say, because there wasn’t a Saturday game to demonstrate that. But I feel really good of what we accomplished in the bye week,” Mendenhall said.


Get to know: UVA

The decision to go with junior quarterback Kurt Benkert, and stick with him after early struggles, is clearly paying off at this point. On the season, Benkert has thrown for 1,455 yards (291.0 yards per game), completing 59.8 percent of his passes (119-of-199), with 13 touchdowns and six interceptions.

The past two weeks have seen Benkert come into his own. He threw for a school-record 421 yards and five touchdowns in the Central Michigan win, and followed that up with 336 yards and three touchdowns in the win at Duke.

The passing game is keying an offense that is humming along nicely, gaining 411.2 yards per game and scoring 27.8 points per game.

The run game has gotten noticeably better since the anemic 38-yard output in the season-opening 37-20 loss to Richmond, now averaging 119.8 yards per game and 3.9 yards per carry, with both featured backs, Albert Reid (318 yards, 5.4 yards per rush) and Taquan Mizzell (260 yards, 5.0 yards per rush) averaging more than five yards per attempt.

The receiving corps is showing depth, with three receivers – Olamide Zaccheaus (26 catches, 13.1 yards per catch), Keeon Johnson (26 catches, 10.2 yards per catch), and Doni Dowling (18 catches, 15.4 yards per catch) stretching opponents’ secondaries.

Mizzell, a Bilentnikoff Award Watch List player in the preseason, has 21 catches (8.1 yards per catch) out of the backfield.

The defense is still … coming along. Trying to be nice about that. Opponents average 471.6 yards and 29.8 points per game, gaining 162.0 yards per game on the ground (4.2 yards per rush) and 309.6 yards per game in the air.

Yeah, ugh.

Linebacker Micah Kiser is having a monster season in Mendenhall’s new 3-4 scheme, leading the Cavs with 58 tackles, with five tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, three pass breakups, two quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles.

Safety Quin Blanding, battling injuries since the preseason, and limited to one practice a week, is second on the team with 46 tackles. Linebacker Zach Bradshaw is third on the team with 43 tackles, and like Kiser is a scorebook stuffer – with four tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, three pass breakups, one quarterback hurry and one forced fumble.

Defensive end Andrew Brown, a former Top 10 national recruit who had trouble living up to expectations in his first two seasons, finally looks like that guy – with 4.5 tackles for loss and two sacks among his 19 tackles.

Virginia is dead-last in FBS in field goals made (just one!). Dylan Sims has 10 touchbacks on 22 kickoffs. Punter Nicholas Conte averages 45.2 yards per kick, with 13 of his 27 punts downed inside the 20.

Joe Reed is averaging 26.0 yards per kick return. Daniel Hamm is getting 6.3 yards per punt return.


Get to know: Pitt

Pitt (4-2, 1-1 ACC) is what you can call battle-tested, with wins over Penn State and Georgia Tech, and close losses at Oklahoma State and North Carolina.

The Panthers can move the ball, averaging 430.0 yards and 37.3 points per game, most of it on the ground, where Pitt gashes opponents for 244.2 yards per game (5.2 yards per rush).

Run, run, run, run – Pitt runs on more than two-thirds of its offensive snaps. James Conner leads the way (441 yards, 4.2 yards per carry).

Wide receiver Quadree Henderson is the second-leading rusher, with 31 carries – a ton of jet sweeps – for 353 yards, an 11.1 yard average.

Chawntez Moss (197 yards, 6.8 yards per carry) is part of the depth in the Pitt backfield.

Quarterback Nathan Peterman has thrown for 1,115 yards (185.8 yards per game), completing 65.0 percent of his passes (89-of-137) with nine touchdowns and two interceptions.

Jester Weah averages 20.5 yards per catch (17 receptions). Henderson actually gains less per catch (10.5 yards) than he does on his runs.

You’ll also hear the name of Scott Orndorff (14 catches, 14.5 yards per catch).

Conner has 13 catches out of the backfield (13.0 yards per catch).

The Pitt D gives up 400.7 yards and 31.5 points per game, which is a lot for a team that has a strong running game eating up clock (the Panthers average 34:34 time of possession per game).

The run defense is actually pretty stout (98.3 yards per game, 3.1 yards per rush), but the pass defense is porous, allowing 302.3 yards per game and 11 passing touchdowns.

Placekicker Chris Blewitt is a weapon (7-of-10 on field goals, with a long of 50, and 17 touchbacks on 40 kickoffs). Punter Ryan Winslow averages 42.1 yards per kick, with nine of his 28 punts downed inside the 20.

Watch out for Henderson on kick returns (33.1 yards per kickoff return, with a kick-return TD, and 11.0 yards per punt return).

Preview by Chris Graham