Virginia fell to No. 15 North Carolina in the South’s Oldest Rivalry Saturday, and now will look to bounce back at home against Pittsburgh — who lost to the Tar Heels just a week before Virginia. The Cavaliers (3-6, 1-5 ACC) played one of their most complete games of the season against the Tar Heels, nearly matching them in every stat but falling just short in a 28-31 home defeat.
The Panthers (5-4, 2-3 ACC) also looked like they would triumph against North Carolina but squandered a halftime lead and fell 42-24. Pittsburgh rebounded a week later, though, knocking off No. 20 Syracuse in a 19-9 rock fight. The teams will meet with Virginia needing to win out in order to achieve bowl eligibility and the Panthers needing just one to reach the six-win threshold.
Players to watch
Pittsburgh junior running back Israel Abanikanda
Abanikanda has been one of the best volume runners in the country in 2022. The junior was an efficient backup last year in the Panthers’ juggernaut offense but truly broke out this fall. Abanikanda has racked up over 1,000 yards on the ground already this year despite missing last week’s game, and the Brooklyn native has gone nuclear in his last three games, totaling 576 yards and 10 touchdowns before missing last week’s victory with an undisclosed injury.
Pittsburgh senior quarterback Kedon Slovis has been a step down from Pittsburgh’s starter in 2021, current Pittsburgh Steeler Kenny Pickett. The senior has completed under 60 percent of his passes for 7.5 yards per attempt — fairly pedestrian numbers. The running game may have to prop up the Panther offense if they want to score against an ascending Cavalier defense.
Virginia graduate student cornerback Anthony Johnson
Johnson is quietly having one of the best pass coverage seasons in the FBS. The cornerback entered the North Carolina game as one of the best-five rated defensive backs in the country, according to Pro Football Focus. Johnson is third in the country with 13 passes defended and two interceptions. More importantly, he’s contributed to a team that’s in the top quartile of passing yards allowed per game. Johnson’s transition from good to great has helped fuel this defense’s turnaround, and if he can help negate Slovis’s impact, Virginia can afford to put more defenders in the box to stop Abanikanda.
Keys to the Game
Giving senior quarterback Brennan Armstrong some help
Last week was the offense’s highest scoring output against an FBS offense since losing to Virginia Tech last November. This was in spite of the fact that Armstrong was missing his top three receivers — juniors Dontayvion Wicks and Lavel Davis Jr. and graduate student Keytaon Thompson. Armstrong instead relied on junior tight end Sackett Wood, freshman receiver Sean Wilson and his own legs to keep the game close. Overall, the quarterback accounted for 71 percent of the team’s 418 total yards. Armstrong’s rushing was especially effective in the first half but tailed off as North Carolina began to drop graduate student linebacker Noah Taylor — a former Virginia player — back as a quarterback spy.
All three star receivers are expected back Saturday. If offensive coordinator Des Kitchings continues to show improved play-calling from the offense’s low points against Georgia Tech and Miami and the starting receivers can create more, then the offense may put up a vintage performance against a middling Panther unit.
Which defense will put together the more complete game?
In 2021, Pittsburgh fielded the 29th best defense in the country by Bill Connelly’s SP+ metric, while Virginia ranked 100th in the same stat. This season, the tables have flipped, as the Cavaliers rank 59th to the Panthers 68th. Virginia’s defense has improved markedly due to Johnson and junior cornerback Fentrell Cypress’ play in the secondary and tons of sacks from edge rushers in senior Chico Bennett Jr. — the ACC sack leader — and graduate students Kam Butler and Paul Akere. Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh defense has regressed after losing a handful of key seniors and transfers. With the defenses so evenly matched, whichever defensive coordinator can coax better play out of his unit will give his team a huge advantage — especially if either team can force these interception-prone quarterbacks into mistakes.
ESPN’s matchup predictor gives Pittsburgh a 63.7 percent chance to win Saturday. If Virginia’s run defense — tied for 36th in the nation in yards per rush allowed – can slow down Abanikanda and force the unreliable Slovis to sling it, then the Cavaliers could pull off the upset. The game will kick off at noon at Scott Stadium and it will be broadcast on ACC Network.