**Editor's note: For all the Hoos headed to the Steel City this weekend, if you're looking for things to do or places to go in Pittsburgh, be sure to check out Cardiac Hill's advice from over the summer!**
STL: When we first chatted back in July, you said you thought 6-7 wins was Pitt's likely end result this year. Three games in, you've dropped a game to a really good Florida State team, smoked a pretty bad New Mexico squad, and had a barn-burner last week with Duke. How are you feeling about the season today: better, worse or the same?
Cardiac Hill: With the ups and downs, what I really take away from this team is that they're right where most of us would have expected on a win-loss level at 2-1. 3-0 would have been incredible but 1-2, a disappointment. If the defense and special teams had performed better against Duke, I think we'd be dealing with increased expectations. Anytime you give up 55 points, though, it's hard to feel good about what you did to stop the other team. The fact is, to this point in the season, the offense has been better than anticipated while the defense has been worse. We'll see if that keeps up, but at 2-1 right now, the team is about where a lot of us would have expected.
STL: This kid Tom Savage turned a bunch of heads last week, completing almost 70 percent of his passes and throwing an ACC-record six touchdown passes. But in the first two games, he'd thrown two interceptions in each game. Is inconsistency going to be the norm, or is one of those two extremes more the rule than the exception?
CH: Hard to tell because there's really not much of a track record with him. He's really almost like Roy Hobbs-like in comparison to a degree. He was highly-touted coming in to Rutgers and had a promising freshman year in 2009 (2,200 yards with 14 touchdowns and seven picks), but was benched in 2010 in favor of Chas Dodd. He transferred out and went to Arizona, but after he got there, Rich Rodriguez came with his up tempo offense and he really didn't fit there. So he never played a game there and came to Pitt last year. That was his second straight season when he sat out and he's playing this year for the first time in about three years. Fact is, he still doesn't have a lot of games under his belt so we're still in kind of a wait and see mode.
STL: The 58-point outburst against Duke helps on this front, but Pitt has one of the better offenses in the country so far this season. You're fourth in the conference in passing despite playing one fewer game than the top three teams. Football Outsiders rated your offense as 9th best nationally. That same rating system puts the UVa defense at 8th overall. What have y'all been looking to do when you have the ball, and what's the best bet for stopping it?
CH: The big improvement in the offense we've seen with Savage is the big play. Tino Sunseri, Pitt's quarterback over the past three years, always struggled in that area and despite having some talented wide receivers, we just didn't see a lot of successful deep passing plays. With Devin Street and Tyler Boyd, Pitt has two receivers that stretch the field and very well could be playing in the NFL someday. There have been already been nine passing plays of more than 25 yards in the team's three games and four were for more than 50 yards - that's really been unheard of in recent years for Pitt. The threat of the deep pass has really opened things up in the running game.
True freshman James Conner and junior Isaac Bennett are the two guys in the backfield, but Conner's really been the one that's impressed. The passing game, understandably, got a lot of press last week. But Conner ran for 173 yards on only 26 carries in that game and he's averaging 6.9 yards per attempt this year. He has 326 yards through the three games and there's really been a nice balance of pass vs. run.
STL: Florida State putting up 40+ on somebody isn't a huge surprise. But 55 to Duke no doubt raised eyebrows among the Pitt faithful. In terms of yards allowed per game, the Panthers are ranked outside the top 100. But by the same token, UVa has had trouble moving the ball. Where have the weak points been in the defensive unit? What are you hoping to see improve in the next few games?
CH: Surprisingly, the secondary hasn't been as dominant as expected and the team ranks near the bottom of the NCAA in passing efficiency defense. I think they unit will get better as there's just too much talent there. They returned three starters from last year when they ranked in the top 25, so it makes little sense for them to have been this bad. I always hate singling one guy out but safety Ray Vinopal has been the weak link there. He's the one guy that wasn't a starter last year and he cracked the starting lineup after the team lost Jarred Holley. He's been beaten on several big plays and on replays, has looked lost at times. I think teams will start picking on him more and more of Pitt doesn't fix it.
The defense was kind of a mixed bag against Duke. They gave up a ton of yards, but as Paul Chryst pointed out, they likely don't win that game without the four turnovers they forced as well. Personally, I'm hoping the pass defense will improve because if it doesn't, the team will be in for a long season.
STL: Bottom line, this seems like a game that pits (pun intended) strength against strength: Pitt's offense against Virginia's defense. The other side of the ball could be a smoldering tire fire of ineptitude. How do you see it all playing out? Put more simply, who ya got?
CH: It's really up in the air to be honest. I said after Pitt's debacle against Florida State that we unfortunately wouldn't know much about this team until after the Virginia game. Beating New Mexico and Duke were necessary, but anyone saying they know for a fact that this team is a good one right now is kidding themselves. The only team of consequence that Pitt played throttled them and this team is still a big unknown in my opinion.
I'm on the record as saying that we know Pitt isn't elite, but how good they are will be determined by the teams in the middle, like Virginia, North Carolina, Syracuse, etc. If Pitt wants more than a six-win season, they'll need to beat some of those teams. If I'm forced to make a pick, I probably like the Panthers in this one because the game is at home. If it weren't, I might be inclined to pick differently. But what I've seen so far out of the offense has been really impressive and I expect the defense can't continue to be this bad. Part of the problem in the Duke game was also the special teams (Pitt gave up a TD punt return, had a punt attempt go bad, had a short field goal blocked, and missed an XP) ... I'd be surprised if that unit was as bad again.
Thing is about that Duke game that there were times when the defense actually played well in that game. In Duke's first four possessions, Pitt forced two interceptions and a three-and-out. In the beginning of the second half, Pitt's defense started with a three-and-out, got a punt, and then stopped Duke on fourth down. I'm leaning towards that game being more of an aberration simply because they generally aren't that bad.
Virginia winning this game wouldn't surprise me at all. But I'll take Pitt by about the touchdown by which they're favored.