No. 23 Virginia football gears up to face Pitt

The red-hot Cavaliers prepare for another Coastal clash under the lights at Scott Stadium

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Junior defensive tackle Eli Hanback will have to continue his solid play against a productive Pittsburgh run game.

Andrew Walsh | Cavalier Daily

No. 23 Virginia football is rolling.

The Cavaliers are winners of three-consecutive games, ranked for the first time since 2011 and bowl-eligible for the second-consecutive year. Virginia (6-2, 4-1 ACC) will attempt to continue its winning ways against Pittsburgh in a game played Friday night under the lights at Scott Stadium.

Both teams come into the game with momentum and belief in their ability to win the ACC Coastal.

Virginia is brimming with confidence after beating North Carolina 31-21 on Oct. 27 to gain possession of first place in the ACC Coastal, and Cavaliers players expressed their desire to win the conference.

“We want the Coastal,” junior transfer quarterback Bryce Perkins said, “and we are not going to be satisfied until we get that.”

Perkins carried Virginia’s offense against North Carolina. The Tar Heels had no answer for Perkins’ speed and elusiveness. He rushed for 112 yards and a touchdown and passed for 217 yards and three touchdowns. His number one target, senior wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus, also had a tremendous day. Zaccheaus had 10 receptions for 108 yards en route to becoming Virginia’s all-time leader in receptions.

The defense stifled the Tar Heels’ offense. Senior linebacker Chris Peace stood out with six tackles and a strip sack, which allowed Virginia to go up 31-14 and secure victory.

Pitt, however, also has its eyes on the Coastal, and they have a decent chance. They are currently tied for second place with Virginia Tech at 3-1.

Pitt Coach Pat Narduzzi boldly stated at the beginning of the season that Pitt would be headed to Charlotte in December for the 2018 ACC Championship Game. While he drew some criticism for the statement, the Panthers (4-4, 3-1 ACC) still control their destiny in ACC play after most recently picking up a thrilling 54-45 win against Duke.

Pitt has been inconsistent this year, but has shown its ability to play well against the best. The Panthers record is certainly no indication of their strength. Three of Pitt’s four losses have come at the hands of top-15 teams, including No. 9 UCF and No. 3 Notre Dame.

The Panthers’ game against the Fighting Irish in particular demonstrates their ability to match up against the very best in college football. Against Notre Dame, Pitt led through the fourth quarter, but eventually gave up a 14-6 lead to lose 19-14.

Pitt has also played poorly against inferior teams. The Panthers’ loss to North Carolina (1-6, 1-4 ACC) is especially concerning. Pitt allowed the Tar Heels to score 38 points, a team the Cavaliers held to 21. Furthermore, the Panthers’ abysmal away record is concerning as they go to Scott Stadium, where the Cavaliers have been undefeated this season.

All this said, Pitt will be a very challenging opponent for Virginia. The Panthers have a dynamic offense that will pose challenges for the Cavaliers’ defense. Pitt’s run game is especially strong. The Panthers accumulated 484 yards on the ground against Duke, led by senior running back Qadree Ollison whose 795 yards rushing are third-best in the ACC this year.

“Pitt is a unique challenge,” Mendenhall said. “If I were to speak about their offense for a moment, I think they're very physical.”

Virginia stepped up against North Carolina to stop a potent run game, and will have to do the same against Pitt to win. Defensive linemen will be key. Stalwarts like junior end Eli Hanback and sophomore end Mandy Alonso must continue their consistent play, and freshmen linemen like Jordan Redmond and Aaron Faumui must step up.

Defending the run has been a consistent emphasis for Coach Mendenhall ever since Navy ran all over the Cavaliers in the Military Bowl last year en route to a 49-7 win.

“It's been a relentless pursuit of run fundamentals the minute the Navy game was over just knowing our program would not nor could not take another step forward until we got that added,” Mendenhall said. “It doesn't mean we have arrived yet. We have plenty of work to do, and this game will certainly be a unique test.”

On the offensive end, the Cavaliers are poised for a big day. Against the Blue Devils, the Panthers defense was porous, allowing 619 total yards. With the right balance, which was well executed in the North Carolina game, Virginia should be able to put up big points against Pitt. The mix of inside — with Perkins and senior running back Jordan Ellis running the football — and spreading it outside to Zaccheaus and junior wide receiver Hasise Dubois will propel the Cavaliers to another big day on offense.

Virginia has lost its last three consecutive meetings against Pitt, but is in good position to reverse that trend this time around.

Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m. from Scott Stadium.

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