The Hoos are 1-0 in the ACC, fresh off the bye week, and looking to come off the intermission with a win. The margin for error for Virginia to make a bowl game remains razor thin — Saturday’s game, again, is a must-win. Good thing for the Hoos, this game is certainly within reach, but in order to do it, here’s what we’ll be looking for...From the Upper Deck.
- Watch out for Zaccheus - In the buildup to this game, much has been made of the Panthers’ depleted secondary as it look like three-year starting cornerback Avonte Maddox won’t be playing this week. That leaves redshirt freshman Dane Jackson to replace him, and brings about the possibility that freshmen Damar Hamlin and/or Therran Coleman could burn their redshirts. Add to that outside linebackers Mike Caprara and Elijah Zeise already having missed some time and the Panthers are thin to say the least. With those injuries, look for the Cavaliers’ Olamide Zaccheaus to have a nice afternoon. The second-year wide receiver has proven to be Kurt Benkert’s go-to big play guy and presents a mismatch that can exploit Pitt’s weaknesses both in the linebacking corps and the secondary. In his last two games, Zaccheaus has 12 catches for 183 yards and three touchdowns. He’s beating teams deep, he’s beating teams over the middle, and he’s beating teams in the flat. If he and Benkert can continue their connection, a big day could be in store.
- Get after Peterman - The Pitt offense is predicated on ball control with James Connor out of the backfield and precise passing from quarterback Nathan Peterman. Peterman isn’t going to defeat you by airing it out and looking for the big play, but he will dink and dunk you to death. On the season, he’s completing 65% of his passes and he’s only turned it over twice. Not only is Peterman very accurate and smart with the football, he also has a tremendous offensive line. His streak for pass attempts without a sack reached 82 before being broken last week in Pitt’s win over Georgia Tech. On the flip side, UVA is coming into the game having turned up the pass rush coming up with nine sacks in their last three games (they have twelve on the season). The key for the Virginia line will be to make Peterman uncomfortable with the football in hopes of disrupting his rhythm passing.
- Win on Special Teams - Special teams have been a tale of two sides of the ball for Virginia this year. In the punting and kick coverage game, the Hoos have been spectacular, while the return game and field goal kicking game have been less than stellar. If it weren’t for Kurt Benkert, punter Nick Conte might be in the discussion for team MVP at this point in the season. He’s averaging 45.2 yards per punt but not only that, almost half of his punts have been downed inside the 20, and opponents are only averaging five yards per return. That has given the Hoos a major edge in field position battles. On the other side of special teams, the Hoos have taken a very conservative approach. They’re content to call fair catches on punts and have only tried two field goals on the season. Against Pitt, Virginia will have to try to neutralize the Panthers’ special teams weapons. Kicker Chris Blewitt is 7-10 on field goals including a long of 50 yards. In the return game, Quadree Henderson has been stellar averaging 11 yards per punt return, 33.1 yards per kick return, and has taken one to the house for a TD. Pitt averages 11 per punt return. The Hoos give up five yards per punt return so something has to give. If this one comes down to a field goal, advantage Pitt. But given the Hoos’ field position control, improved defense, and potentially explosive offense, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.
Kickoff is at 12:30 from Charlottesville and will be televised by the ACC Network. It’s going to be a gorgeous fall day at Scott Stadium, but if you can’t be there, join us in the game thread. As a bonus for those in Charlottesville, go visit our fearless leader, Brian Leung, as he has two book signings scheduled for the best book ever written about Virginia sports. But most of all don’t forget to check back Sunday to see how we did, and as always, GO HOOS!