In the nearly five quarters of game action since junior quarterback Brennan Armstrong’s rib injury late in a shootout-loss to now-No. 14 BYU, Virginia’s offense has only mustered three total points. With Armstrong on the sidelines against now-No. 6 Notre Dame, the Cavaliers (6-4, 4-2 ACC) struggled offensively en route to a 28-3 domination by the Fighting Irish.
Despite the consecutive losses and a bleak outlook for an offense without the potential ACC Player of the Year, Virginia still has a chance to win the ACC Coastal Division and earn a spot in the ACC Championship with a pair of wins over No. 20 Pittsburgh and in-state rival Virginia Tech. However, a loss to the heavily-favored Panthers (8-2, 5-1 ACC) Saturday afternoon would eliminate the Cavaliers from contention for the division crown, completely halting the momentum Virginia has built up through eight games of the season.
Players to Watch
Virginia freshman quarterback Jay Woolfolk
There has been no official update on the injury status of Armstrong outside of Coach Bronco Mendenhall mentioning his star quarterback was taking the injury “day by day” following the Notre Dame loss, so signs seem to be pointing towards Woolfolk as the starter once again against Pittsburgh. If that is the case, all eyes will be firmly set on Virginia’s first true freshman starting quarterback since 1977. Against the Fighting Irish, it became clear that Woolfolk would need time to adjust to his new role, although he certainly looked more comfortable as the game progressed. Cavalier fans hope that an experience against an elite defense such as Notre Dame’s will allow for significant improvement ahead of the matchup against the Panthers.
It is likely that Pittsburgh will key in on the run, so if Woolfolk is able to make use of Virginia’s plethora of pass-catching weapons — namely, sophomore wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks and senior football player Keytaon Thompson — the Cavaliers will have a good chance at putting touchdowns on the board. This will be desperately needed to keep up with the Panthers’ high-powered offense and Heisman candidate senior quarterback Kenny Pickett.
Junior defensive lineman Habakkuk Baldonado
With eight sacks on the season, Baldonado ranks third in the ACC and has proven to be a difficult player to stop for opposing offensive lines. Against North Carolina Thursday night, Baldonado recorded a sack and a half to go along with four total tackles. Baldonado leads a Pittsburgh defensive front that has wreaked havoc on its opponents, ranking first in the conference with 36 sacks — tripling Virginia’s conference-worst 12 sacks. While the Cavaliers boast an incredibly experienced offensive line — combining for 163 total starts — they have had their issues with pass protection at times, allowing 33 sacks on the year and over four per game in the team’s four losses. Against Notre Dame, Virginia gave up a season-high seven sacks, and while that was certainly in part due to the caliber of the Fighting Irish, it also likely was due to an unfamiliarity with Woolfolk under center and how he likes to move in the pocket. Especially if Woolfolk is the starter again, Baldonado has a tremendous opportunity to add to his sack total.
Keys to the game
Contain Kenny Pickett
The Virginia defense has, rightly so, come under a lot of heat recently for its poor performances — allowing BYU to score 66 points — but despite being blown out against Notre Dame, Virginia put together a solid defensive effort. The Cavaliers forced two turnovers and allowed only 174 passing yards, giving up 28 points to one of the nation’s best teams. Had Virginia been playing with Armstrong, the performance may have been good enough to result in a win. The Panthers, however, present an even more formidable challenge with Pickett leading the way. Pickett has thrown for 32 touchdowns compared to just four interceptions, and Pittsburgh averages 43.5 points per game. While it is an almost impossible task to completely shut down the Panthers’ offense, the Cavaliers will need to provide some resistance, as it is unreasonable to expect Woolfolk will lead Virginia to over 40 points in just his second game as the starter.
Win the turnover battle
Simply put, the Cavaliers appear to be outmatched by Pittsburgh, especially if they are without the services of Armstrong. However, the easiest path to eliminating this apparent gap is to generate turnovers while taking care of the ball. While it is rare that Pickett commits a turnover, in the Panthers’ lone ACC loss to Miami, he threw two interceptions compared to only one total turnover by the Hurricanes. The ability to end promising drives with a turnover effectively takes points off the board, and taking care of the ball is crucial for field position purposes. If Virginia can win the turnover battle, it will have a good chance at pulling off the upset.
The Cavaliers will travel to Pittsburgh for a Saturday afternoon showdown at Heinz Field. Kick-off is set for 3:30 p.m., and the game will be televised on ESPN2.