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Virginia football vs. Pittsburgh — a breakdown

The Cavaliers and Panthers meet Saturday night in a highly anticipated ACC Coastal clash

<p>Junior linebacker Charles Snowden recorded 61 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss last year.</p>

Junior linebacker Charles Snowden recorded 61 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss last year.

The season starts off with a bang, with the Cavaliers traveling to Heinz Field to take on Pittsburgh Saturday night. This marks the first time Virginia starts out against an ACC opponent since 2003, when Virginia beat Duke 27-0 to open the season. 2003 was also the last time Virginia beat Virginia Tech. The Cavaliers last opened against Pittsburgh in 2006 at Heinz Field — a game they lost 38-13. That game had far less implications than this one, however, as the Panthers were in the Big East at the time.

This time, the battle for the ACC Coastal starts in August for both teams. Last year, the Panthers won the Coastal despite finishing just .500 overall. Before the Pittsburgh game, Virginia was ranked No. 23 in the nation and controlled its destiny in the Coastal division title race. Then, the Panthers dominated the Cavaliers on the ground en route to a 23-13 victory and Virginia lost its last two conference games, falling short in its bid for the division title. Last season, it was a pivotal game for the Cavaliers.

This year, Pittsburgh will not have the same rushing attack, having lost its two 1,000 yard rushers, Darrin Hall and Qadree Ollison — who rushed for a combined 253 yards and 3 touchdowns against Virginia last year — to the NFL. Junior A.J. Davis will look to fill their big shoes. Junior quarterback Kenny Pickett will have a tough task against a strong Virginia linebacking corps and secondary, and Pittsburgh’s loss of star junior defensive end Rashad Weaver — out for the season with a torn ACL — will significantly weaken the Panthers’ front seven. The Panthers’ secondary has decent experience, but Pittsburgh’s run defense is vulnerable and the Cavaliers’ experienced defense is prepared to take on Pickett and Co. This is arguably Virginia’s most important game of the year, setting the tone for the rest of the season.

Many old faces will be on display under the Saturday night lights, with senior quarterback Bryce Perkins leading the offense and senior linebacker Jordan Mack and senior cornerback Bryce Hall leading the defense. There will be plenty of new faces too, however, with freshman defensive lineman Jowon Briggs receiving the starting nod at nose tackle, junior cornerback Nick Grant playing his first minutes as starting cornerback and sophomore running back Wayne Taulapapa taking the first carries of his football career as starting tailback. The newcomers must step up for Virginia to win this game.

Key matchup: Virginia junior cornerback Nick Grant vs. Pittsburgh junior wide receiver Taysir Mack

Hall is a preseason first team All-American a year after leading the country with 22 pass breakups. Hall will likely be matched up with Panthers senior wide receiver Maurice Ffrench, who led Pittsburgh last year with six receiving touchdowns, in addition to rushing 164 yards and 2 touchdowns on the ground. Expect Pickett to avoid Hall, and instead target Grant, recently named starting cornerback alongside Hall. Coach Bronco Mendenhall was quick to praise the Spotsylvania, Va., native, despite his inexperience — Grant made just four tackles last season.

“Nick is a relentless worker,” Mendenhall said. “He's the most conditioned player I would say on our team, he's the most consistent worker currently on our team.”

Grant will likely have to cover Pittsburgh junior wide receiver Taysir Mack for much of the game, who led the Panthers with 557 receiving yards last year. Mack has significant big play potential and also led the Panthers with 22.3 yards per reception last year. He should benefit from new Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, who brings significant pedigree in the passing game from his time as head coach at Massachusetts. There, Whipple led an offense that finished No. 14 in the nation in passing yards per game — he will attempt to bring this passing game to the Panthers’ offense, known in the past for its rushing game. The matchup between Grant and Mack will be at the center of it.

The X-factor: Virginia junior linebacker Charles Snowden

Snowden, the 6-foot-7 former basketball player converted linebacker, is the key to stopping Pittsburgh’s improved passing attack and limiting the long, explosive runs that helped Pittsburgh beat Virginia last year. Darrin Hall’s touchdown runs of 41 yards and 75 yards proved to be the difference. Having Briggs at nose tackle will help, and the defensive line’s experience is strong, but those tackles outside the trenches will be crucial. While Mack, junior linebacker Zane Zandier and sophomore linebacker Noah Taylor will be the primary run-stoppers in the four of the 3-4, Snowden’s length can allow him to make touchdown-saving tackles.

In the passing game, he makes Virginia’s defense disruptive. Snowden led the nation last year in passes defended last year by a linebacker with 11, and can rattle Pickett early by making a play on the ball or rushing off the edge. With Pickett shaken up, Virginia’s defense can silence the Pittsburgh crowd early.

The pathway to victory: Establish a solid ground game

Last time the two teams met, Virginia wasn’t able to establish a solid ground game against Pittsburgh. This was especially important in that game, with the poor weather conditions at Scott Stadium making passing difficult. The Cavaliers rushed for just 44 yards on 26 carries. Perkins, especially, couldn’t seem to get anything going, finishing with 15 carries for -7 yards. This needs to change for Virginia to win. When the ground game is going, it frees up Perkins’ ability to spread the ball around the field. Despite Virginia’s performance in the rushing game last year, Pittsburgh was not known for its run defense. In fact, the Panthers’ run defense was vulnerable at times in 2018. Although they held Virginia to 44 yards on 26 carries and Notre Dame to just 80 yards on 38 carries, they gave up 223 rushing yards to Duke, 240 to Central Florida and 293 to Miami. The Cavaliers won football games last year by dominating time of possession through establishing a solid ground game early. Workhorse tailback Jordan Ellis made that happen in 2018. Now Taulapapa and others will have to pace the Cavaliers’ offense.

The bottom line: Virginia has what it takes to win at Heinz Field for the first time ever

The Cavaliers have never won at Heinz Field. They have traveled to Pittsburgh five times and lost every time. That means nothing. Virginia has playmakers all over the football field and a proven system. Pittsburgh returns several solid players, but also has key losses — most notably at running back and at defensive end, with Weaver’s season-ending injury. Ultimately, as Mendenhall has said, particularly with two strong ACC teams, the battle in the trenches could be the difference. Virginia continues to get stronger there on both sides of the ball, and there’s good reason to believe Pittsburgh won’t win that battle this time around.

Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m. from Heinz Field. The game will be televised on the ACC Network.