We made it, everyone. The Virginia Football season gets underway tomorrow night as the Hoos head northwest to take on the Pitt Panthers. In order to get the insider lowdown on the Panthers, we chatted with Anson Whaley (@AnsonWhaley) from Cardiac Hill (@PittPantherBlog). Don’t forget to listen to this week’s podcast for more Pitt preview goodness and make sure you’re all set to watch the game on the ACC Network.
Check out my answers to Anson’s questions here.
STL: Oh hello, ACC foe. How do y’all feel about kicking things off with a divisional game?
CH: I know a lot of Pitt fans are excited but I’d rather open with an easier team. As we saw in the Miami and Florida game, even good teams are mistake-prone early on. I’d much rather play a game of this importance after having a game or two under their belts.
All of that said, it’s definitely going to be exciting and the fact that it’s helping to break in the ACC Network and will be a night game should make it that much more fun.
STL: Pitt has some changes offensively with a new coordinator and some departures (namely Hall and Ollison....the former of which lit up the Hoos last year). What do you expect out of the Panther offense?
CH: There are lots of variables right now. Head coach Pat Narduzzi sort of explained their mentality in his presser, saying that he wants to run about 60% of the time while throwing about 40%. But he’s said similar things before and really blew that up last season with Ollison and Hall running so well. Pitt’s passing game is a big question mark this year and, even with an experienced quarterback returning and some talented receivers, there are questions about just how much success there will be through the air.
I expect Pitt will find a way to run a little bit since they usually do. The two backs, A.J. Davis and Todd Sibley, are both inexperienced but talented. But beyond that, with a new offensive line, it’s hard to tell how much can be expected.
STL: Who is someone to know defensively for Pitt?
CH: Defensively it all starts with senior safety Damar Hamlin. Hamlin was a top flight recruit and has continued to get better during his time at Pitt. This year, he’ll be joined by redshirt sophomore Paris Ford as the other safety. Like Hamlin, he was another top recruit pursued by many programs and the hope is that this becomes his breakout season as a first-year starter. Those two guys have the potential to be very good this year, though Ford is certainly a question mark to a degree. One thing I like about Ford is that he won the job outright. Narduzzi has several ‘OR’ designations for guys locked in close battles but Ford is not one of those and appears to have a good handle on the starting job.
STL: Virginia’s defense looks to be stout this season with incredible depth at the line and Bryce Hall anchoring the secondary. What concerns you (if anything) about the UVA defense?
CH: Certainly the passing defense. Despite the injury to Darrius Bratton, Pitt still has to prove they can throw the ball. And while Narduzzi has vowed not to change the offense based on Hall’s ability, you have to wonder if he will lock down that side of the field. That said, I’m sure the run defense will be better, too, after that game last season. I have to think those guys will have something to prove.
I expect the Pitt passing game will be improved this year but playing against a cornerback like Hall isn’t ideal in the first game of the year.
STL: Bryce Perkins was a threat both with his legs and arm last season. What will be the key for Pitt slowing him down?
CH: Probably the play of the linebackers. Pitt has questions in the defensive line after losing their best pass rusher, Rashad Weaver, for the season. But it’s going to be up to the linebackers to be able to keep Perkins honest and not allow too much opportunity for him to run wild. The secondary has the potential to be very good, so hopefully they aren’t as dependent on the linebackers to make plays in pass coverage. But whenever you face a dual threat guy, it’s always a challenge.
STL: Prediction time. Who wins Saturday and why?
CH: This game has the look of a toss-up. I can run through a laundry list of items for both teams and present reasons why they will or won’t win. Virginia being a slight favorite doesn’t surprise me but I like the fact that Pitt gets the game at home. And while they won the Division last year, Narduzzi is big on playing the disrespect card. Picked to only finish fourth in the Division this year, you can bet the team will want to come out focused and motivated. He made some backhanded comments in the press conference about not knowing who did the preseason voting, etc., and you can tell that he enjoyed the fact that not much was expected of the team this year, even though he said the opposite. That should, and probably will, serve as some kind of motivation.
I’d also point to the fact that Pitt found a way to win by ten points last year while not having anything resembling a passing game. With a year under his belt, I really expect Pitt to get more out of quarterback Kenny Pickett. And even though he didn’t throw for a ton of yards last year, he’s played somewhat mistake-free ball for the most part, serving as more of a game manager. Even if he doesn’t go off, necessarily, as long as he limits his mistakes, Pitt should have a chance. I don’t expect Pitt will have the same success on the ground this year but do think they’ll be able to pass a little more.
Unpopular pick, I’m sure, but I’ll take Pitt here by a handful of points. If the game were in Virginia, I’d probably be inclined to go the opposite direction.
Huge thanks to Anson for taking the time to answer some questions! The game will kick off Saturday at 7:30pm on the ACC Network.