Too hard to do the right thing: UVA can’t get out of its own way, again
You wouldn’t have any reason to know it then, but the TD run was to be the beginning of the end for the Cavs, who to that point seemed to be hitting on all cylinders.
Except for one: kickoff coverage. The lead would have been two scores if the Cavs could just cover kicks.
After Virginia’s second touchdown, a 44-yard run by Taquan Mizzell, the kick-coverage unit broke down on the ensuing return, allowing Quadree Henderson to break contain after breaking a tackle inside the UVA 25, then outrace the pursuing defenders down the right sideline for what turned into a 93-yard touchdown.
For whatever reason, Cavs placekicker Dylan Sims, who had registered 10 touchbacks on 22 kickoffs on the season coming into the game, wasn’t getting the same depth on his kicks on Saturday, and the ‘Hoos weren’t getting downfield in their lanes to cover his kicks.
I say for whatever reason. Bad news, UVA fans: there was intent behind the short kicks.
“We were really intentional on where we wanted the ball to land, based on where their returns went and possibly because of the specificity we were asking him to land,” UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall told reporters after the game.
Hmmm. Henderson had already returned a kickoff for a touchdown in 2016, and was averaging 33.0 yards per kick return coming in, and the strategy wasn’t to use a kickoff specialist who boots nearly half his kicks for touchbacks to his full advantage.
The lack of wisdom of this strategy reared its head again after the Reid touchdown, when a Sims kick was taken at the 5 by Rafael Araujo-Lopes down the left sideline all the way to the UVA 26.
Get a touchback, make Pitt start at its own 25, and you can rightly think about getting a stop, maybe getting the ball back with a lead and a chance to add to it, at the worst bleed the clock and go into the break up a touchdown.
Instead, Pitt was in business.
It would take the Panthers most of the rest of the first half to convert the field position into points, but after picking up a first down on a fourth-and-one run by James Connor, and a slew of penalties on both teams inside the Virginia 10, Pitt finally tied the game with 40 seconds left in the second quarter on a 1-yard run by Conner.
OK, so the situation, game tied, 40 seconds left, and again, Pitt gets the ball to start the second half.
It’s not automatic that you run the ball once or twice and go into the locker room, but that’s most likely what you end up doing, given a couple of things – the lack of time on the clock, the shortage of timeouts (Virginia had one left), and the inability of the ‘Hoos to kick field goals.
Coming in, UVA was dead last in FBS with one field goal on the season. For most teams, you can try to get the ball to around the 30, get a field goal of 50 or less into the air on the final play, and if it doesn’t go through, whatever.
Pitt squib kicked, and Virginia started at its own 32, decent field position. The first play call was what you’d expect, a run. Taquan Mizzell broke the run for a 12-yard gain, and at this stage, with the ball to be spotted at the 44, doing the right thing got to be too hard.
To preserve the one timeout, quarterback Kurt Benkert was directed to spike the ball, bringing up a second-and-10. So now the conventional wisdom is: you try to throw the ball downfield, and if you get a first down, awesome, and if anything else happens, you run the ball on third down, force Pitt to consider using a timeout to force a punt, then you punt, and assuming it’s not blocked, everybody heads to the locker room with the score tied.
That’s not what Virginia did. Benkert, on third-and-10, 18 seconds left in the half, took a three-step drop, looking at slot receiver Keeon Johnson all the way, and Jordan Whitehead slid under the route at the Pitt 41 to make the interception.
The athletic Whitehead, who also ran three jet sweeps on offense on the day, gaining 28 yards for his trouble, was in the middle of the field, but quickly sprinted across the field to the right sideline, and cut back at the 10 to get past Benkert for what turned into a 59-yard picksix that had him crossing the goal line with four seconds left in the half.
What happened, and why, was the question of the postgame.
“We knew that if we got past the 35 or 40 then we would try and keep it going, but we just got through and turned it over. It was just a miscommunication,” said Benkert, who seemed to let the memory affect him thereafter, completing just seven of his 21 pass attempts in the second half, for 93 yards, after going 13-of-24 for 185 yards in the first half.
Interesting that Benkert blamed the INT on a “miscommunication,” seemingly throwing shade at Johnson for running a bad route. Watch the replay several times, and it’s hard to tell if the ball was just underthrown, if Johnson and Benkert were not on the same page about where the ball was to go, or Whitehead just made a good play.
Whatever the case, the play “completely backfired on us,” offensive coordinator Robert Anae said.
“That was my fault all the way. I blew the call and put our quarterback in a bad situation,” Anae said.
Mendenhall stood up for his coordinator and his QB.
“We want our quarterback to be aggressive, and we want him to have confidence and we promote that. So I’m not going to put all of the outcome of the game on that one play. It certainly was a big play and it certainly was a momentum shifter, but that’s part of college football,” Mendenhall said.
A look at the second-half stats might make you want to agree with Mendenhall. The game didn’t come down to one play at the end of the first half. Whatever happened with momentum after the picksix, Pitt just outplayed Virginia in the second half, and actually, over the final three quarters.
The ‘Hoos had 214 yards of total offense in the first half. Over the final three quarters, they managed just 164 more. Benkert was 9-of-14 for 146 yards at the end of the first quarter; he was 11-for-31 for 132 yards thereafter.
Virginia ran for 68 yards on 12 carries in the first quarter; over the final three quarters, the Cavs ran for 32 yards, on 13 carries, which included three Pitt sacks of Benkert, so really, UVA only ran the ball 10 times over the final 45 minutes, after having success on the ground early on.
Mendenhall offered an odd answer on the question of what ailed the offense after the early momentum.
“It went according to plan in the first half and not as much in the second half. But I also think playing from behind is a little different than playing from ahead, so I think Pitt started to rush more aggressively, play pass defense more than run defense and were expecting us to catch up through the air and not worry so much about balance,” Mendenhall said.
Um, yeah, coach, that’s actually exactly what happened. Pitt’s front seven pinned its ears back expecting UVA to throw, and for whatever reason, despite being up most of the second quarter, and then down only one score for a long stretch of the second half, the Cavs played into what Pitt wanted them to do.
The image of this game is Anae chucking and ducking the offense into an endless series of quick, unsuccessful possessions that forced the defense back onto the field and allowed the Panthers to wear down the Cavs with their running game.
Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi couldn’t have drawn up a better scenario for his team to pull out a win on the road than the one that Virginia’s brain trust gift-wrapped and handed to him on Saturday.
Thus wraps another dispiriting loss for a program that started its first season under a new coaching regime with a fan base enthused by a change in philosophy and expectant of an upgrade in the area of strategery from the previous administration, which couldn’t seem to get out of its own way.
The enthusiasm is long gone, judging by the 22,000-plus seats left unclaimed on a sunny Saturday afternoon, and the collective wisdom of the leadership group is still very much at question a half-seaosn in.
Column by Chris Graham