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THE BIG PREVIEW: Virginia at Pitt

Can Virginia pick up the elusive sixth win of the season in Pittsburgh to secure bowl eligibility?

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Duke Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Virginia’s four-game winning streak ended last Saturday in a somewhat disastrous manner as Boston College rudely came into Scott Stadium and punched the Hoos in the mouth. We knew the winning wouldn’t continue forever, but it did seem like BC was beatable. The Hoos just came out flat and never stood a chance against a hot BC team.

The Panthers are coming off a win over Duke, but that is less impressive than it was a few weeks ago when Duke was 4-1. On the season, Pittsburgh is 3-5 with wins over Duke, Rice and Youngstown State.

The Cavaliers have lost the past two games to Pitt, and are 3-6 overall in the series. One of those wins the 2003 Continental Tire Bowl, back when Pitt was in the Big East.

After this game, the Virginia schedule gets much more difficult with the final four games coming against the best four teams they will play this year. So if the Hoos are going to make a bowl game, this is the week to clinch that.

Hoos on Defense

Pitt opened the season with graduate transfer Max Browne at QB. Browne came to Pittsburgh from USC, where he was a backup for three years. Browne was a highly touted prep QB, and at 6’5” 230 really looks like a QB. Unfortunately, Browne injured his shoulder and is out for the season, ending his college football career.

Replacing Browne is sophomore Ben Dinucci, who is more mobile than Browne but not as accomplished a passer. Dinucci had been getting some run earlier in the season, including against Oklahoma State when he completed 18/25 for 228 yards. He hasn’t been quite that good in the past two outings since Browne went down, completing just 27 of 50 (54%) passes for 319 yards, with one TD and one INT. He also has 15 rushes for 22 yards.

Pitt has not changed the offense much with the new QB. It is still a pro-style offense. Pitt will often line up with multiple TEs in a “jumbo” package. They are a heavy run team, and that is even moreso with the QB change. Dinucci is 4th on the team in rush attempts, but has just 45 yards rushing. Last week, Pitt opened the game with two RBs, in what’s called a “21” formation (two RBs, two WRs and a TE).

For the second week in a row, Virginia’s defense is facing a RB who blew up out of nowhere the previous week. Last week, they shut down A.J. Dillon, but perhaps focused too much on Dillon and gave up big plays to basically everybody else. This week, the Hoos must content with Darrin Hall, who rushed for 256 yards and three TDs against Duke. Hall’s previous high was 52 yards against Youngstown State. He was averaging just 3.5 yards per carry before rushing for over 10 yards a pop last week.

Those are Hall’s two big runs. A 79 yard TD run and a 92 yard TD run. In the same game. That’s insane. Considering how many big plays Virginia gave up last week to BC, they should certainly be wary. Hall is actually listed as “OR” on the depth chart with Qadree Ollison. Ollison is best known as the guy who took over when James Connor was being treated for cancer and rushed for over 1000 yards. Ollison is bigger than Hall, though Hall is not small. Hall has more speed, as you can see above.

The WRs are Quadree Henderson (yeah, they have a Qadree and a Quadree) and Jester Weah. Weah leads the team in receiving yards, while Henderson is Pitt’s answer to Olamide Zaccheus. Quadree has 11 receptions, 24 rushes, and is also their primary KR and PR. Keeping him in check on those returns is going to be key. Henderson can turn a game very quickly. In fact, he had a KR TD against the Hoos last year. (Really don’t recommend watching that if you’re a Virginia fan. It’s not pretty.)

The loss of Juan Thornhill really hurts. The Hoos have been able to use man coverage a lot this year because of their two talented CBs. With Thornhill out, that goes away. It hurt a lot last week when Thornhill was physically unable to make the plays he normally makes. When he was out, De’Vante Cross was simply beaten as he’s not on the same level as Thornhill (nor should a two-way first year be expected to be). The gameplan will change. There will be more zone coverage - at least on Cross’ side. The return of Malcolm Cook helps, not least because it allows Chris Moore to move back to DB. He may be the nickel back, since Brenton Nelson has been so good at SS.

Another player to watch is Jordan Whitehead, who has played both ways at times. He’s the starting SS, but also has 20 carries and two receptions on the season. He’s averaging over seven yards per carry, including this 35 yard TD run against Syracuse.

Pitt’s has one of the biggest OLs in the nation. They average nearly 320 pounds. LG Alex Officer was the starting center all of last year, after playing RG the previous year, and center as a freshman. His versatility is a plus, and will get him into the NFL where he’ll probably play at center. LT Brian O’Neill is also an NFL prospect. Obviously, that means the left side of the line is the strength and should be the focus of the defensive game plan. That’s where we’ll see Andrew Brown most of the time.

The most important thing is going to be stopping Ollison and Hall. If they can’t get going, Pitt’s offense isn’t going to work. DiNucci has talent and he can beat you with his legs. But he’s not truly a dynamic runner and he isn’t a good enough passer to beat the Hoos secondary. Even without Thornhill.

Hoos on Offense

As much as the defense struggled last week against BC, the offense was arguably worse. The offense has been trending down since the Boise State game, and last week that really showed since the defense wasn’t able to keep the opposition off the scoreboard.

BC’s defensive weakness was on the ground, something Virginia wasn’t really able to exploit because of the early deficit. BC’s pass defense is actually pretty good, and it showed last week. That is not an issue this week, because Pitt is better at rush defense than pass defense. Yes, teams are averaging 4.7 yards per carry (37th worst), but they are also averaging almost 9 yards per pass attempt (9th worst).

They have almost no pass rush, with just 11 sacks in eight games. No player has more than two with LB Oluwaseum Idowu and CB Avonte Maddox tied for the team lead. They aren’t a whole lot better in TFLs, as Idowu leads the team with 8.5, but nobody else is over four. Pitt calls their LBs Star, Mike, and Money. You can simply read that as Strong, Middle and Weak.

The DL has combined for just three sacks. That means the pass rush has to come off the blitz. That is how you get a CB as the team lead in sacks. Of course, blitzing can lead to big plays for the offense, as Wahoo fans well know. Redshirt freshman DT Keyshawn Camp leads the DL with 17 tackles and also has four passes broken up. He’s 6’4” 280 and he’s very talented. He isn’t really a pass rusher, but he’s tough to run against.

You could actually say the same about the entire DL, though Tennessee transfer DeWayne Hendrix has a lot of talent. He missed the entire season last year with an injury, and missed 2015 after the transfer, so he could just be rusty. He didn’t do much as a freshman Volunteer.

Although three of the top four tackles are LBs, the best group on this defense is the DBs. Jordan Whitehead would probably be leading the team in tackles if he hadn’t missed three games (instead, he’s 3rd). Those DBs are all on the small side, with the 5’11” 195 lb Whitehead as the biggest of the group. The Wahoo WRs have had that size advantage in most games this year, but did not against BC’s bigger CBs. Perhaps the size advantage will help the passing game get back on track this week. That said, both Maddox and sophomore Dane Jackson have good cover skills and ball skills. They’ve combined for three INTs and 13 passes broken up. Whitehead also has an interception and three break-ups and had a pick-6 in last year’s contest (with four seconds left in the first half). Maddox is the only senior on the team, which means they could be pretty good next year. All that youth also means mistakes. There have been too many missed assignments from the Panthers this year.

Those LBs who lead the team in tackles are Idowu, who we’ve already mentioned, and MLB Saleem Brightwell. Idowu was a walkon who stepped in last year due to injuries and impressed. He’s not the biggest or fastest LB, but he has great instincts. Brightwell is really more of an OLB than a MLB, and is also undersized. But he’s played well this year, especially in underneath pass coverage. The third LB, Elijah Zeise, is also undersized, and began his career as a WR. He had five catches in 2015. He missed the entire regular season last year with an injury.

A trio of undersized, quick LBs is why this team is better at stopping the run. It’s also part of why they have no pass rush. When your blitzing LB is giving up nearly 100 pounds to the OL blocking him, he’s not going to win that battle very often. That means the OL will have to communicate well. It also means the RBs will be involved in blitz pickup.

The Hoos have a big advantage on this side of the ball. The matchup last week wasn’t a good one, and the early big plays from the Eagles meant that the game plan changed. This week, Pitt’s defensive strengths and weaknesses match Virginia’s offensive strengths and weaknesses. There is simply no reason for the Cavs to not be successful on offense.


BC came in riding high off an emotional road win over Louisville. The Hoos, on the other hand, were coming off two straight games that were both fairly boring. That energy that the Eagles was something the Cavaliers couldn’t match and it cost them.

This week, that shouldn’t be a problem. Pitt is coming off a road win, but over a Duke team that has lost four in a row. The Hoos are coming off an embarrassing loss on their home field. Getting up for this game should not be a problem.

Pitt is simply not very good. They have some talent, especially on offense, and their wins have come via strong offensive performances. But if the Wahoo offense gets back up to speed, Pitt won’t be able to keep up.

Prediction: Hoos 31, Panthers 17