Meaningful October football: Can UVA get leg up on ACC Coastal race?

uva-logo-new2How long has it been since UVA Nation was getting ready for a meaningful fall football game in Scott Stadium? It turns out that 2011 was only three years ago, but it feels like forever since Virginia Tech came to town that November with the Coastal Division title on the line.

The Hokies left Charlottesville with a dominating 38-0 win, deflating an overflow home crowd early in a game that was never really a contest in any way. The ’11 Cavs went on to lose in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, and went 6-18 combined in 2012 and 2013 to put coach Mike London on one of the hotter hot seats in college football coming into 2014.

But surprising to some, Virginia has played its way into an interesting position as the calendar flips over to October, with wins in three of their first five in a stretch that included games with three Top 25 teams, and at a modest 1-0 in the ACC, Saturday night’s game with Pitt, also 1-0 in the ACC, is for important early momentum in the Coastal Division race.

Whichever team leaves with the win is 2-0 in the conference, with the three preseason Coastal favorites, Miami, Duke and Virginia Tech, already with one ACC loss on their ledgers.

Yeah, this game isn’t just meaningful because I’m saying it is; it really does carry some significance.

The question of the week, then: Can UVA get the W? The Cavs come in as a four- to six-point favorite on the Vegas books, a margin that is maybe a bit surprising in terms of how Pitt is coming in on a two-game losing streak, the second loss in that stretch a 21-10 home loss to unheralded Akron, in a game that saw the Zips from the MAC take control early in the second half and dominate thereafter.

How, then, does this Pitt team match up with Virginia, and vice versa?

Pitt: The Panthers will run the ball, at least try to. On the season, Pitt is averaging 269.4 yards per game on the ground, though the Panthers have been held to less than 200 yards in each of its last two, including the 24-20 loss to Iowa two weeks ago. Quarterback Chad Voytik is a game manager, throwing for 150.8 yards per game with six touchdowns, four interceptions and a 126.7 pass-efficiency rating on the season. Defensively, Pitt has been stout, giving up 265.2 yards per game, and the D was solid, for the most part, in the two losses.

UVA: The Virginia offense has put up more than 500 yards in each of its last two, and is averaging 408.0 yards per game on the season. The quarterback situation is still unsettled, though now more by injury than performance, with starter Greyson Lambert listed as questionable for Pitt with an ankle injury suffered at BYU two weeks ago. Backup Matt Johns has actually put up better numbers in relief, with a pass-efficiency rating nearly 20 points higher than Lambert, with Johns throwing for more yards (594-564) and more TDs (6-2) on the season. The D is giving up 334.8 yards per game, but that figure is a bit deceptive, as Richmond and Kent State each put up big yardage days in games that turned out to be a pair of 45-13 UVA wins. Key to the defensive strategy is creating turnovers, 18 so far through five games, while Pitt has been very protective of its possessions, with just eight turnovers through its five games.

How this one will play out: Pitt will try to establish its running game, mainly because it has to with its deficiencies in the air. Virginia’s defense is giving up just 86.6 yards per game on the ground, at a clip of 2.6 yards per carry. Defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta’s scheme is predicated on taking away the run and then putting pressure on the quarterback once the run is no longer a threat, and that formula has worked well to this point in the 2014 season for Virginia. Don’t expect Pitt to all the sudden be able to break down that wall. Expect offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild to open things up in the game plan against a Pitt defense that has been able to stifle opponents from moving the chains but has also only created eight turnovers.

As this one plays out, Virginia gets on the board mid to late first quarter, gets a working margin in the second quarter, forces Pitt to adjust its offensive approach to get the ball in the air, and the Cavs create a couple of turnovers that puts it away by the latter stages of the third quarter.

Take UVA and the points in what will turn into a double-digit win.

– Column by Chris Graham

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