Who is ready for some Friday night lights? The Virginia Cavaliers welcome the Pitt Panthers tonight at 7:30 for a pivotal matchup in the ACC Coastal Division. As it stands now, the Hoos are in first place with a 4-1 record, and a win over the Panthers (tied for second with VaTech at 3-1) would go a long way in helping Virginia reach the ACC Championship game.
Pitt started their season slowly, but is coming off a high-scoring win over Duke. To get more info on the Panthers, I chatted with Anson Whaley (@AnsonWhaley) from our sister site, Cardiac Hill (@PittPantherBlog).
Let’s get to it!
Streaking the Lawn: Pitt had a tough start to their season, but played some difficult teams. How has this team performed based on your expectations?
Cardiac Hill: Adding everything together, this is probably about what most reasonable people expected. With games against Penn State, Notre Dame, and UCF, the non-conference schedule has been rated (by ESPN) as the most difficult in the country. Pitt fans would have loved to get one of those games. But not winning any is understandable and 4-4 with this schedule so far is probably about right.
Fans always want more but the reality is that, eight games in, this is a pretty mediocre football team playing a very tough schedule. There’s no sugarcoating it. I suppose they could be 6-2 but they could just as easily be 2-6. They might have the talent to knock off a great team like Notre Dame but a lot of teams do when you’re talking about purely a one-game scenario, so I’m not even sure of what to make of the near-win they had a few weeks ago. The hope here is that Pitt gets back to a bowl game after missing one last season for the first time in a decade. If they happen to continue to compete for the Coastal, that’s sort of a cherry on top. But I’ve got no illusions about this team, really. They’re a pretty average bunch that excels in some things and is clearly lacking elsewhere.
STL: Virginia and Pitt are putting up the same numbers offensively (around 28 ppg), but Pitt’s defense has left a little to be desired. How do you see the Panthers handling the three-headed monster of Bryce Perkins, Jordan Ellis, and Olamide Zaccheaus?
CH: Before this past weekend, I would have felt a lot better about the defense coming into this one because they had just come off of a very good performance in the near-win at Notre Dame. But last weekend, they were lit up like a Christmas tree by Duke so it’s hard to project what we’re going to see from them Friday. Pitt escaped with a win in that Duke game and I expect the defense to be, at the very least, motivated to play much better.
All three of those guys scare you, but I’m really concerned with how they defend against Perkins, in particular. Pitt was torched by McKenzie Milton of UCF, another dual-threat guy, a few weeks back and hard a hard time keeping him under control. Also of concern is that, this week, Pitt announced the loss of their second defensive starter for the year, lineman Keyshon Camp. The Panthers have some adequate backups but the defense is definitely a little shorthanded here.
Frankly, you don’t know what to expect from the Pitt defense. They were practically lights out against Notre Dame and then made Duke look like one of the most explosive teams in the country last week. Pitt’s problem is that I don’t see them scoring a ton of points as they did last week. For as bad as they were defensively, Duke was equally bad, and Virginia’s a much stronger team on that side of the ball.
STL: Kenny Pickett is averaging just 144 yards per game, but the Pitt rushing game is strong (4th in the ACC). On the flip side, Virginia is 4th in the ACC in rushing yards allowed. How important is winning that battle for Pitt?
CH: That’s basically the ball game right there. If Pitt is going to upset Virginia, they’re going to have to do it with a big performance on the ground. Pickett is, at best, serviceable. But he’s shown that he’s not going to throw for 300 yards or carry an offense on his back with his arm. Heck, he doesn’t even have a 200-yard passing game this season. He’s best when he is out there scrambling, as he did last week, and keeping defenses on their toes. Maybe he makes 1-2 big throws a game, but that’s probably going to be it.
I don’t see Pitt winning this one without a good game by the running backs because the passing game is often non-existent.
STL: What are some names (one offense, one defense) to know that Virginia fans might not be familiar with?
CH: Offensively, the man of the hour is true freshman V’Lique Carter. Carter had not played at all this year and seemed headed towards a redshirt. He’s actually a defensive back but had been so impressive on the scout team that the coaches figured they needed to run a few plays on offense for him. Well, a few plays turned into 137 yards and two touchdowns on only seven carries.
Immediately after the game, Narduzzi initially said he would play again this week but tried to play coy this week during his press conference in saying that he wasn’t sure Carter would play at all. The factor is that Carter can play in three more contests and still redshirt this year under the new rules. Pitt has four games left in the regular season, though, so there’s some back and forth on if they want to burn his redshirt. But fans realize what’s at stake here and it’d be baffling if Pitt didn’t try to use him in such a big game. Narduzzi likes to throw smokescreens, and I think that’s what this is. I can’t imagine Carter will not play and I can’t imagine Virginia won’t be expecting him to as well. Trying to this on some level, if that’s really Narduzzi’s plan, seems silly. Any coach is going to watch game film of what their opponent did and Carter’s right there front and center.
Instead of defense, I’m going to give you a name on special teams that most Virginia fans probably won’t know - kicker Alex Kessman. Kessman could have an NFL future some day and, while he’s been a little spotty at times, has an incredible leg. He already owns the Heinz Field record (for college or pros) with a 55-yarder and, last week, kicked a 54-yarder. He’s 3-3 from beyond 50 yards this year and is becoming quite the weapon for Pitt. If it’s a close game, his leg could decide it.
STL: So, this one is kind of important for the Coastal. What’s your prediction?
CH: I’m 7-1 in my picks this year on our site, so have gone against the Panthers several times, obviously. But I picked them to beat Syracuse and Duke when they were underdogs and I’m going with Pitt here as well. Pitt has very real questions defensively but I’ve also got real questions about Virginia. These aren’t doubts as much they are uncertainties. I don’t have a good handle on how good/bad they are just because of the schedule they’ve played so far. The statement win over Miami looks less impressive these days and I find it really difficult to judge them just because of the non-conference schedule. Pitt is a pretty mediocre team but I’m not sure that Virginia isn’t as well.
I also look at last year’s game and Pitt contained Ellis and Zaccheaus fairly well, keeping both well below 100 yards. And while the teams are different, the Panthers returned a lot on defense, which hopefully carries over here. I also like the weapon of Kessman on special teams. He had three field goals last week and Pitt could need a similar performance on Friday. Pitt will lean heavy on the running game and seniors Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall, I expect, will be ready.
I’ll call for the upset here, saying something like Pitt, 23-20. I’d feel more confident if the game was at home for Pitt and I’d be lying if I said the 5-0 Virginia record at home and 0-3 road record for Pitt weren’t concerning. But two of the Panthers’ road losses were by eight points, and that included a game against Notre Dame. Conversely, Virginia’s home record could be a little inflated due to the competition. My belief is that Pitt can win on the road and that these two teams are closer than what it appears.
Huge thanks to Anson for chatting. Check out the Hoos and Panthers in action tonight at 7:30pm on ESPN2.