Virginia put together an up-and-down, mistake-laden effort against No. 18 Pittsburgh, falling 48-38 despite the return of junior quarterback Brennan Armstrong. It seemed like the game was there for the taking for the Cavaliers (6-5, 4-3 ACC), but a number of costly mistakes — especially on special teams — proved to be the difference against the Panthers (9-2, 6-1 ACC).
“A kickoff return for a touchdown, a punt return, the change of field position, and then we have our defense out to block a field goal, and we jump offsides,” Coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “That alone could’ve been the difference. Those three certainly impacted the game.”
With the loss, Virginia is now officially out of the running for the ACC Coastal Division race and a chance at an ACC Championship game berth. It is a disappointing result given the momentum the Cavaliers had gained near the end of October, but there is still plenty to play for with Virginia Tech coming to town next weekend.
Virginia, with Armstrong under center, elected to receive the ball to open the game. After a targeting penalty on Pittsburgh junior linebacker SirVocea Dennis kept the drive alive, the Cavaliers capitalized with a three-yard touchdown strike from Armstrong to senior football player Keytaon Thompson. Seeing Armstrong effectively move around the pocket and even take a couple hits was certainly a sign of relief for Virginia fans.
The Cavaliers then forced a stop on the Panthers’ offense, and Armstrong led the offense inside Pittsburgh territory before the drive stalled, and Virginia was forced to punt. The Panthers hummed offensively on their second drive, going almost 90 yards to tie the game at 7-7 on an 11-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Kenny Pickett to sophomore wide receiver Jordan Addison on the first play of the second quarter.
Pittsburgh took its first lead of the game on its following offensive possession, as Pickett evaded senior free safety Joey Blount on a fourth down play before finding Addison wide open in the back of the endzone for an easy touchdown. The Cavaliers found a major answer on offense by driving 75 yards in just six plays capped off by a two-yard touchdown run by sophomore running back Mike Hollins with 6:52 left in the half.
The positivity for Virginia fans was short-lived, as sophomore running back Israel Abanikanda took the ensuing kickoff 98 yards for a score, giving the Panthers a 21-14 advantage. After a quick three-and-out and another dangerous return, Pittsburgh put a field goal on the board to extend its advantage to 10 points with only 2:25 remaining in the first half. With the Panthers receiving the ball to start the second half, it seemed like the game may have been on the verge of getting out of hand.
However, Armstrong — as he has done so many times this year — led the Cavaliers down the field on a convincing nine-play, 75-yard drive that lasted just under two minutes. Armstrong connected with graduate student tight end Jelani Woods for a seven-yard touchdown to cut Pittsburgh’s lead to three points.
A pair of deep-throw interceptions from Pickett and Armstrong closed an eventful first half. It was clear throughout the half that Armstrong was playing at full health, as he looked confident in his throws and jumped back up after hits without wincing. He finished the half with over 250 yards and a pair of touchdown passes.
Virginia got just what the doctor ordered on the second play of the half when Blount intercepted Pickett and returned it inside the Panthers’ 15-yard line. However, the Cavaliers could not capitalize and had to settle for a short field goal from sophomore kicker Brendan Farrell, tying the game at 24-24.
The teams traded punts, and for the second time on a fourth down this game, Pickett found Addison wide open for a long touchdown with 8:32 left in the third quarter. Virginia certainly missed a chance by putting only three points on the board in its first two drives.
After a slow start to the half offensively, the Cavaliers answered Pickett’s touchdown by marching down the field in impressive fashion with Thompson finding the endzone on an eight-yard rush to tie the score once again. On the ensuing possession, Virginia held strong inside the redzone to keep Pittsburgh to a field goal and limit the damage to only three points.
The Cavaliers had another quick three-and-out, and the Panthers nearly put the game out of reach with an energy-deflating touchdown drive that lasted nearly 10 minutes. Pittsburgh was kept alive on the drive by a pair of inexcusable penalties by the Virginia defense — the first being a pass interference call on junior defensive back Coen King on fourth down and the second being an offsides penalty on a field goal attempt — that both gave the Panthers a first down.
However, the Cavaliers’ offense simply would not quit, as Armstrong found senior wide receiver Ra’Shaun Henry for a 39-yard touchdown strike. The quick two-play drive brought the score to 41-38 with 9:18 left in the game. The defense answered with a big stop, but a miscue on the ensuing offensive possession forced Virginia to punt with 3:47 remaining, putting the game in the hands of its defense.
The Cavaliers had a chance to earn the ball back, but a 62-yard catch-and-run to Addison effectively put the game away, giving Pittsburgh a 10-point lead with just over two minutes to play. Despite a last-ditch effort by the Virginia offense, a failed fourth down inside the redzone put the final score at 48-38.
In his return, Armstrong put together a near-perfect performance, throwing for 487 yards and three touchdowns. Sophomore wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks and Thompson also had monster games, as the duo combined for 21 catches and 259 yards.
The defense showed flashes, forcing an explosive Panther offense into a number of punts and field goals, but it was penalties and miscues throughout the game that ultimately doomed the Cavaliers. For Virginia fans, it was an intensely frustrating experience watching the Cavaliers come so close to pulling off the upset yet fall short due to avoidable mistakes.
“You certainly have to play cleaner to win a championship,” Mendenhall said.
Virginia will return to action Saturday against in-state rival Virginia Tech with kickoff set for 3:45 p.m. Despite three consecutive losses, a win against the Hokies would go a long way towards gaining momentum and buzz heading into the postseason.