Football fails to defend Scott Stadium on Homecomings
Cavaliers fall to Pittsburgh, 45-31, in shootout
When it appeared the opening drive of Virginia’s homecomings game against Pittsburgh would end in a punt, back-to-back Panthers penalties brought junior quarterback Kurt Benkert and his Cavalier offense back out on the field for a chance to convert on fourth and one.
Benkert handed the ball off to senior running back Taquan Mizzell, who had just enough room develop on his right to move the chains. Virginia (2-4, 1-1 ACC) scored six plays later behind senior running back Albert Reid’s five-yard run, beginning a shootout in Charlottesville that, for a while, was the kind of game one side of the ball hates and the other loves, before Pittsburgh pulled ahead and comfortably won 45-31.
“Well, I mean for the offensive side it was a great feeling,” Mizzell said. “Sometimes the defense might give up points on special teams or whatever it is, but the offense has got to pick them up. There were a lot of guys out there making plays.”
New junior placekicker Sam Hayward clanged the extra point off the upright with the ball going through to make it 7-0.
After going three and out on their first drive of the game, Pittsburgh (5-2, 2-1 ACC) drove the football 71 yards in only six plays. Star junior running back James Conner broke free for a 16-yard gain on his first carry, and then junior wideout Jester Weah spun away from a Cavalier tackler en route to a 38-yard touchdown reception.
Virginia’s potent offense answered right back with an eight-play drive, which, by comparison, seemed methodical, but in reality lasted a little over three minutes. The ball carrier Mizzell bounced outside and raced down the home sideline, his teammates with him step for step outside the chalk. Mizzell high stepped into the end zone for a 44-yard score.
On the ensuing kickoff, the Cavaliers paid a steep price for letting sophomore wide receiver Quadree Henderson return the football. Henderson caught it at the Panther seven and, showing off his elite speed, vision and cutback ability, took the kickoff back 93 yards to the house.
“We knew that going into the game, and returns that they ran were the same returns that we prepared for,” head coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “So clearly their staff did a better job of executing and having their young men execute and coach them in those situations than we did. And [Henderson] was exceptional.”
But again the Virginia offense responded well and in short order. The second snap of its drive ended in a 74-yard touchdown pass from Benkert to the team’s leading receiver, sophomore Olamide Zaccheaus, on a fly route. The Cavaliers regained the lead, 21-14, and it stood until early in the second quarter.
Pittsburgh scored the first of its three second-quarter touchdowns on Conner’s one-yard run at 9:08, which capped off an impressive 10-play, run-heavy drive. The pattern continued the following series, as Virginia regained the lead once more. Reid matched Conner with a one-yard rushing touchdown at 5:57, and Hayward converted his fourth extra point of the day without incident.
The half ended in disaster for the Cavaliers. From the goal line, Conner tallied his second touchdown to conclude another drawn out Panthers drive that tied the game 28-28. Benkert and his unit had just 40 seconds left on the clock from which to operate. Instead of taking the conservative approach — three straight handoffs — Benkert threw the football not only on second down but also on third. He forced the third down throw into coverage, and sophomore defensive back Jordan Whitehead intercepted it, returned it 59 yards for six.
“I put the gas to the pedal, and it completely backfired on us,” offensive coordinator Robert Anae said. “We’ve got to prepare our quarterback, our players, at a higher level in those situations, when to exploit and when to pull back. We missed the point.”
Panthers senior kicker Chris Blewitt defied his last name, nailing the extra point to increase Pittsburgh’s advantage to 35-28 at the break.
Much like it did in the second half against Connecticut and the third quarter against Central Michigan, the Virginia offense could not sustain drives, and consequently could not keep pace when Pittsburgh started scoring.
“We had plenty of opportunities to get back on the field,” Anae said. “That’s when we became inconsistent, more of what we faced in the first half of the year. Failure to just throw and catch. Stymied on run blocks, and third downs were turning into these longs.”
Blewitt missed a 47-yard field goal wide right, and then the Panthers sputtered, punting on their next two drives. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers racked up just 19 yards of total offense en route to three straight punts.
Pittsburgh’s 81-yard drive to open the fourth quarter put the game away. Senior quarterback Nathan Peterman dumped the football to sophomore fullback George Ashton, who found paydirt.
“We’ve just got to focus on everything on defense,” junior safety Quin Blanding said. “That’s the bottom line … We’ve got to win.”
Blewitt tacked three more on to the Pittsburgh lead with just 3:21 left, drilling his 25-yard try, so Hayward’s 36-yard field goal at 2:04 — the first of his career — only chipped the Cavalier deficit down to two scores. The Panthers recovered the onside kick attempt, and ran out the clock.
“Sometimes you have a great quarter and then just an awful one,” Anae said. “Our job now is to see if we can match these things up now through the course of a game, and get consistency out of our team. That’s the goal.”