Football seeks third-straight win Saturday against Pitt

Benkert coming off impressive performances, Kiser leads ACC in tackles


Junior linebacker Micah Kiser, who leads the ACC in tackles, has been a leader of a Virginia defense which has steadily improved its play this season.

Courtesy Virginia Athletics | Cavalier Daily

Two weekends ago, the Virginia football team beat an opponent on the road for the first time in four years, defeating Duke 34-20.

In the game, the Cavaliers (2-3, 1-0 ACC) generated 416 yards of total offense while forcing the Blue Devils to commit six turnovers.

“I’m really proud of our team in taking another step forward,” Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “I think that each game has been a positive step. We’re not done, but it’s fun to see the players happy. It’s fun to see them see that it’s coming. It’s fun to see them see the plan that’s in place and it’s fun to see them believe in each other. I like seeing people develop, and it’s happening in front of us all.”

Saying that play has improved is an understatement. Over the first three weeks of the season, the Cavaliers were outscored by their opponents 94-56, did not win a single game and gave up a staggering 1,211 yards of total offense.

The past two games have been a different story. Led by junior quarterback Kurt Benkert, the Cavaliers have revitalized their offense, solidified their defense and finally generated a sense of excitement about the football program.

Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi, whose team Virginia will face Saturday, expressed respect for Benkert.

“The quarterback is playing really well,” Narduzzi said. “Benkert is doing a great job throwing it. He's a quick-release guy that is tall, good in the pocket, doesn't take many sacks, throws it away and is very intelligent.”

Against the Blue Devils, Benkert threw for 336 yards and three touchdowns, while Duke’s quarterback, redshirt freshman Daniel Jones, threw for 324 yards but posted a dismal 1-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Mendenhall credits the pressure applied to the Blue Devils’ offense to changes made by the Cavaliers’ defense over the course of the season.

“The biggest mistake that I’ve made was making improvements based on a team that has a defense that’s been playing it for years and years,” Mendenhall said. “It was too much, too soon, and it was completely my fault. I’m still getting to know the players and they’re still getting to know me. This is just the beginning, but it will consistently improve, as a U.Va. defense.”

If its play against Duke is any indication, the Cavaliers’ defense is headed in the right direction. Junior linebacker Micah Kiser continues to lead the ACC in tackles and ranks third in tackles in the nation. Junior free safety Quin Blanding has also contributed significantly and will continue to add to his notable career tackling total.

Even though the Cavaliers are coming off of a bye week, Blanding is confident in his team’s ability to stay focused.

“Our bye week wasn’t more laid back,” he said. “This year there are no days off. We still go at practice hard, no matter what. Nothing has slowed down — our tempo or speed didn’t slow down at all. Our energy still kept going. I think this bye week was needed to see what we could do, and I think our energy picked up even more and as a result we’re still rolling.”

To maintain their winning streak this Saturday and improve to 3-3 on the season, the Cavaliers will have to continue their increased production on the offensive side of the ball as well. Pitt (4-2, 1-1 ACC) comes to Charlottesville on a two-game winning streak of its own, and defeated a strong Big Ten offense in Penn State during their second game of the season.

Under center, the Panthers are led by senior quarterback Nathan Peterman. Over six games, Peterman has thrown for 1,115 yards, nine touchdowns and only two interceptions. Due in part to the fact that Pitt’s offensive line has allowed just four sacks all season, Peterman has completed an impressive 65 percent of his passes, good enough for 23rd in the nation among qualifying FBS quarterbacks.

Over the first half of the season, the Panthers have found success in both their passing and rushing games. Junior running back James Conner leads Pitt with five touchdowns and 441 yards, while junior wide receiver Jester Weah boasts 348 receiving yards and three touchdowns.

Pitt has also shown the ability to win close games, which may be a factor this Saturday, seeing as in three conference meetings between the Panthers and Cavaliers, the average margin of victory has been a mere 7.7 points.

So far this season, Pitt has found much more success than the Cavaliers when it comes to close situations. Most recently, the Panthers defeated Georgia Tech 37-34 last weekend on a last-second game-winning field goal. On the other hand, the Cavalier’s only one-possession game was a 10-13 loss against Connecticut in which sophomore kicker Alex Furbank missed a 19-yard field goal as time expired.

Still, Pitt is seeking its first win in Charlottesville since a 26-0 victory in 1953. The Panthers have dropped each of their last two games at Virginia — a 24-19 loss in 2014 and a 44-14 loss in 2007. Virginia will look to continue this pattern Saturday and stay on their winning trajectory.

Pitt is the first of three consecutive home games for the Cavaliers.

Kickoff Saturday is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. at Scott Stadium.

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