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THE BIG PREVIEW: No. 23 Virginia vs. Pitt

The Hoos welcome the Panthers for a night contest at Scott Stadium.

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at North Carolina Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Week after week, we’re getting more hyped about the Virginia Cavaliers football team. It took some time, as the early season schedule didn’t really give the team a chance to exceed expectations. But this team is getting better with experience, and they’re playing some outstanding football right now. On top of that, they’re fun to watch. The offense is fun, with run-pass-options and enough deep passes to keep the defense honest. The defense is fun with talented CBs playing a lot of man coverage and talented OLBs gunning for the QB.

Virginia is ranked for the first time since 2011, and has a real shot at winning the ACC Coastal Division. Sure, that doesn’t mean much considering how poor the division is. Even so, getting a chance to play in the ACC Championship Game would be a major accomplishment for a team that was picked dead last in the conference by the media in the pre-season.

This week, No. 23 Virginia takes on the Pitt Panthers in a Friday primetime game. Virginia played two Friday night games last season as they went to Boise State and hosted Virginia Tech. The weather prediction is for rain at kickoff, though that may taper off as the game continues.

The game takes place at Scott Stadium, kickoff time is 7:30 Eastern on Friday night. It will be televised by ESPN2. Let’s get on to the matchups.

Virginia on Offense

As I discussed last week, Virginia’s offense had fallen in the national ranks over the past few weeks, but it wasn’t really because the offense was bad, it was because they were facing better defenses. UNC’s defense isn’t great, and Virginia gashed them for 425 yards.

That was just the third most yards the Hoos have had this season, but it was the first time that Virginia has had over 200 yards rushing and 200 yards passing in a game since 2014. It was also the most yards Virginia has had against an ACC foe since facing Duke in 2015.

After last week, UNC’s defense ranks 82nd in the S&P ratings. Pitt’s ranks 98th. The Panthers are coming off a 54-45 win over Duke. Duke had 619 total yards in a game that was at Pitt. At home the previous week against Virginia, that same Duke offense had just 320 yards. Yeah, the Pitt defense isn’t very good. They’ve played in a few shootouts, which doesn’t help, but they’ve also been blown out a couple of times.

They rank 93rd nationally in pass defense and in pass efficiency defense, which is bad. They also rank 97th in rush defense, which is worse. The Panthers run a standard 4-3 defense. They call the weak-side LB “Money” and the strong-side LB “Star”. This is not a young or inexperienced defense. They ranked 75th in defensive S&P last year, so you’d expect them to improve after that, but they have gone the other way.

They aren’t bad at generating QB pressure, tied (with Virginia, among others) for 67th nationally in sacks. They aren’t bad at generating turnovers either, tied for 50th (Virginia is just one TO ahead of them). Where they really struggle is getting off the field. They rank 117th in 3rd down defense, giving up 47% conversions. That’s a scary proposition against Virginia, who rank 12th nationally in 3rd down conversions, also at 47%. If Virginia converts 47% of their 3rd downs, there’s a good chance that they end up on top.

It doesn’t help that Pitt has lost their starting MLB, Quintin Wirginis, for the season. Then again, it’s not like they were crushing it before he was injured. He was the leading tackler, and despite missing two games, is still second. The leading tackler now is FS Damar Hamlin. Wirginis is also second in sacks and TFLs.

The Panthers have 20 different players who accumulated at least one TFL. Some of that is due to the blowouts they’ve been in, but some of it is the relentless pressure they try to put on the offense. Pitt is almost always sending extra rushers, be it pass rush or run blitz. As Virginia fans learned when Jon Tenuta was coaching the defense, when you bring extra pressure, you leave yourself susceptible to big plays. Here’s an example.

Pitt brings six defenders on the pass rush and Duke does a solid job of picking it up. Duke RB Deon Jackson is split out wide and the CB across from him blitzes. That leaves Jackson wide open. He breaks one tackles and he’s off to the races. There’s just too much space for too few defenders.

The reason they blitz so much is that they really don’t have a lot of natural pass rushers. DE Rashad Weaver leads the team with 3.5 sacks and 7.5 TFLs. He’s also one of the youngest players on a defense that starts six seniors and three juniors. The other DE, DeWayne Hendrix, is a transfer from Tennessee who has had trouble staying on the field. He has talent, but hasn’t really put it together. He has just 3.5 sacks in 27 career games. Wirginis’ loss is felt here, as he is a strong pass rusher who often lined up at DE in passing situations.

They also just don’t have great natural cover guys. They play a lot of zone, but even so there always seem to be guys open. Communication seems to be a big problem for this defense. Virginia will try to do things to confuse the defense. They’ll use formations with 3 WRs bunched together. They’ll split out a guy like Chris Sharp and force Pitt to decide how to cover him. They’ll put Olamide Zaccheaus in the backfield and then have him motion out to one side.

Pitt’s defense also isn’t very big. All three units are undersized. The DL averages just 270 pounds, the LBs are all around 230 and the DBs are all under 200. They rely on quickness, but offenses are quick too. And they can be beaten by power backs, as both UNC and Duke showed. That quickness can also hurt when they fall for misdirection. Running QBs have had success with zone-reads and other options. Virginia will use a lot of misdirection to get defenders out of position. Bryce Perkins has proven to be very good at making the correct reads on option plays.

Virginia on Defense

As much as Pitt’s defense hasn’t really been able to stop anybody, their offense has been unstoppable at times. That is mostly on the ground, as Pitt has two very good RBs. Qadree Ollison is 3rd in the ACC with 795 yards, while Darrin Hall is 19th with 429 yards. Both are averaging over six yards per carry.

Three different Pitt players have broken 100 yards in a game this year. Ollison has done it three times and Hall has done it once. And, last week against Duke, true freshman V’Lique Carter had 137 yards rushing on just seven carries. He also had two TDs. Here’s what he did:

There’s some question about whether or not he’s going to play. It seems that coach Pat Narduzzi would like to keep Carter’s redshirt on, which would mean playing him in no more than four games. Last week was his first action, which means he can play in three more. Is this one of those games? There are also some rumors that Carter is dealing with an undisclosed injury. Best guess is that Narduzzi is playing mind games and Carter will play. Why keep a talent like that on the sidelines?

Carter was recruited as a DB, but he’s listed on the roster as WR/DB. He has immense speed, but he’s small. He’s also pretty raw, and those jet sweeps you see above seem to be the way they are going to get the ball into his hands. Yes, those are fairly impressive runs. But there’s another thing to notice there; Pitt’s WRs are outstanding blockers. You don’t rush for over 225 yards per game without good downfield blockers.

Pitt’s rushing offense ranks 23rd nationally. Their passing offense, though, ranks 122nd. They’re 68th in completion percentage, but 119th in yards per attempt. That’s because they lack big plays. The days of Tyler Boyd and Larry Fitzgerald are gone. The leader in receptions is Rafael Araujo-Lopes, a 5’9, 190 lb senior. He’s very quick laterally, but doesn’t really have great top-end speed. He’s their primary PR and he’s very good in that role. He mostly lines up in the slot, and runs typical slot routes. He’s going to run a lot of drags and quick hitches. He isn’t going to go downfield very much. He averages just over 10 yards per catch. But he can do this:

That’s a lot like what we’re used to seeing from OZ. Araujo-Lopes is a similar player to Zaccheaus, though might not have the same top-end speed. He was a RB in HS, and so was under-recruited and spent a year at JUCO. He averages 8.6 yards per return, 36th in the nation. (In case you were interested, Tavares Kelly is 17th in the nation). Here’s his PR TD against UCF. He breaks at least four tackles.

The big play threat for Pitt’s receiving corps is junior Maurice Ffrench (not a typo, there’s two Fs). Like Araujo-Lopes, he was mostly a RB in HS and was under-recruited. He has some serious wheels and is No. 5 in the nation in KR, and one of just three players nationally with more than one TD. He had one on the opening kickoff of the season against Albany. He also had one in the loss at Notre Dame.

Throwing to those guys is sophomore Kenny Pickett. Pickett is a passer who can run, unlike Perkins who is both a passer and a runner. Pickett has rushed for 152 yards on 58 carries, just 2.6 yards per carry. If you remove 121 yards lost on 15 sacks, his rushing numbers are 273 yards on 43 carries, or over six yards per carry. He also has three rushing TDs. As a runner, he’s a bit like last week’s QB, Nathan Elliott. He’s capable, but he’s not looking to run. He’ll use his legs to buy time and make a play with his arm. He’s most dangerous around the goal line.

Pickett has a good arm, but not a great one. Here’s two deep balls from him.

The first one, versus Syracuse, he feels the pass rush coming and doesn’t fully step into the throw and it just doesn’t have enough zip on it. It’s easily picked off. The second one, versus Duke, he throws 60 yards on a rope right onto Ffrench’s hands. He really steps into this one. If he has time to throw, as he does on this one, he’ll can make some impressive throws. It helps when the WR blows right by the defender, which won’t happen against the Hoos. When he gets rushed, his mechanics get off and he can spray the ball around. They key will be to make him uncomfortable.

That’s not easy against Pitt’s OL. It’s a strong unit, averaging 308 lbs and starting four seniors. Unsurprisingly, they’re better at run blocking. They’re also better at the edges. Both OTs are very good, including Kent State graduate transfer Stefano Millin. The interior of the line isn’t as good. Virginia will use a lot of stunts and other pass rush techniques to try getting pressure up the middle.

We haven’t seen Jordan Redmond in the lineup over the past couple of games, because of what has been described as “matchups”. But we’ll learn this week if that rings true, because Pitt has run the ball 318 times versus 192 passes. While they will certainly run to the edge, as we saw with the jet sweep to Carter, both Ollison and Hall are power runners, between the tackles. Hall has even been used in a “wildcat” formation around the goal line and he’s scored a couple of TDs that way.

Ollison and Hall are exactly the type of back that Virginia has had trouble with this year. The bigger backs have generally given Virginia problems. The only “small” back who’s had success was Miami’s Travis Homer, and 72% of his yardage came on one play. If Virginia is able to keep Ollison and Hall from getting going, they’ll shut down Pitt’s offense. That’s what UCF and Notre Dame did and both held Pitt to under 20 points. Penn State was unable to bottle up Ollison, but still managed a blowout win. That game was 14-6 at halftime before PSU ran away in the second half with 37 unanswered points.

Conclusion

Virginia hasn’t beaten Pitt since 2014, and is just 3-7 overall in the series. Many of those games haven’t even been close, including the 31-14 loss last season. There’s no reason to think this year’s game won’t be a close. Virginia, even during its three game winning streak, has played relatively close games all season.

Pitt’s offense is dangerous, but their defense simply isn’t very good. That often means a shootout, which Virginia is not really equipped for. However, this will be the third best defense Pitt has played this year, behind Penn State and Notre Dame, which are two of their three lowest yardage totals (UCF was the other, and UCF’s defense is ranked just two spots below Virginia). They’ve also not performed as well on the road, sitting at 0-3 on the road this year.

Of course, the weather could play a role. As we saw against Indiana, those bigger RBs excel in poor conditions. It’s hard to bring down a 230 lb RB when you’re wet and the ground is wet. Hopefully, as expected, the rain lets up early on and the majority of the game is played in drier conditions. That will help negate the advantage of Pitt’s big RBs.

If Virginia is able to keep Pitt’s RBs from going off, they have a big advantage. But Pitt’s special teams are also outstanding. They have two kick returns and a punt return TD this year. They also have a PK who’s 3-for-3 on FGs outside 50 yards. A close game could very well come down to a FG battle, and Pitt would have the advantage there. However, Lester Coleman gives Virginia an edge in the punting game. Again, a close game could come down to field position and Virginia has done very well in that area recently.

In total, Virginia is at home, under the lights and has simply been playing better football over the past month than Pitt.

Prediction: Virginia 31, Pittsburgh 24 (Season record, 5-3)