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Game Preview: How does UVA match up with Pitt in ACC opener on Saturday?

uva pitt2It feels like months ago that UVA football hit another low point, a 56-14 home loss to Boise State that was actually only two weeks ago. The bye week that followed could not have come at a better time. The Cavs stand at 1-3 after a murderous schedule that included losses to three teams currently ranked in the Top 25 – #15 Notre Dame (4-1), #20 Notre Dame (4-1) and #25 Boise State (4-1).

The win, over FCS William and Mary, wasn’t pretty, a 35-29 win that saw the Tribe rally from a 15-point deficit in the fourth quarter before the Virginia defense finally got a stop in the final minute inside the ‘Hoos 30 to close out the win.

And then there was the Notre Dame game, that saw Virginia take the lead inside of two minutes before giving up the game-winning score on a 39-yard touchdown pass with 12 seconds left.

UVA is struggling in all phases of the game – the defense is giving up 38.2 points and 445.2 points per game and hasn’t forced a turnover, the offense is getting just 3.0 yards per rush and has committed nine turnovers, two of them pick-sixes, and the special teams can’t return kickoffs, cover punts or convert field goals.

But that was then, and this is now. UVA coach Mike London is preaching the message that it’s a new season beginning this weekend with the ACC opener at Pitt (3-1, 1-0 ACC), which opened conference play with a 17-13 over Virginia Tech last weekend in a result that didn’t indicate just how much the Panthers dominated play.

Pitt held the Hokies to 100 yards of total offense, sacked quarterback Brenden Motley seven times, and ran for 166 yards on a rainy, blustery day in Blacksburg, basically dominating the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.

The two programs come into Saturday’s game vastly different than they left Scott Stadium last October. Virginia won that game, 24-19, to improve to 4-2, seemingly on the way toward what would have been a turnaround season for London, before a 1-5 stumble down the stretch doomed the Cavaliers to their fourth losing season in London’s five-year tenure.

Pitt left Charlottesville with a 3-3 record, finished the regular season 6-6, lost to Houston in the Armed Forces Bowl, then lost head coach Paul Chryst to Wisconsin. New coach Pat Narduzzi comes from a Big Ten background, having served most recently as the defensive coordinator at Michigan State, and the B1G stamp is all over the program and how it plays.

 

Breakdown

UVA offense vs. Pitt defense: Quarterback Matt Johns is 76-for-121 passing (62.8 percent) for 989 yards, eight touchdowns and six interceptions, with a 143.4 passer rating. Does he rebound from his awful effort against Boise State (12-of-25, 199 yards, two TDs, three INTs, two of them pick-sixes)? The running game is pathetic: 3.0 yards per rush, 93.8 yards per game. The Pitt D is solid: allowing just 243.8 yards per game. The run defense has been stellar, allowing opponents just 2.5 yards per rush and 71.2 yards per game.

Pitt offense vs. UVA defense: The Panthers don’t throw the ball that much, attempting just 89 passes, 22.3 per game. Pitt uses two QBs – Nate Peterman (43-of-66, 538 yards, four TDs, three INTs, 144.5 passer rating) and Chad Voytik (16-of-23, 112 yards, one TD, one INT, 116.1 passer rating), with Voytik running more looks out of the read-option. Freshman Qadree Ollison is the starter at tailback, after 2014 ACC Offensive Player of the Year James Conner went down to a season-ending knee injury in Week 1, and Ollison is putting up Conner-like numbers (60 carries, 427 yards, three touchdowns in four games). The UVA D is the worst in the ACC against the pass, the third-worst against the run, the worst overall, the worst in recent memory at Virginia.

Special Teams: Virginia punter Nicholas Conte is averaging 46.7 yards per kick, but poor coverage has the UVA punt-coverage team the fifth-worst in the ACC. The kick-return team is the third-worst in the conference. Placekicker Ian Frye has missed three of his six field-goal attempts in 2015 after going 22-for-27 on field goals in 2014. Pitt placekicker Chris Blewitt is also just average (4-of-7 on field goals in 2015). Punter Ryan Winslow averages 39.3 yards per kick.

How This One Plays Out: Pitt dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball against Virginia Tech. The Panthers will do so again on Saturday. The final score won’t indicate it, because Pitt has its own issues on offense, but the Panthers will control this game from the outset. It will feel like a 1-0 soccer match where the team that gets the lone goal is otherwise never seriously threatened. Final: Pitt 10, UVA 3.

– Preview by Chris Graham