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THE BIG PREVIEW: Virginia Cavaliers vs. Pittsburgh Panthers

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 18 Pitt at Virginia Tech Photo by Lee Coleman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Often, season openers are winnable games so that a team can begin to integrate new players and schemes against live action. Not in this case. With the launch of the ACC Network, there are several conference games during the opening weekend. This game will be the third aired by the ACC Network. Virginia’s September 14th game against FSU will also air on ACCN.

The Virginia Cavaliers are just 3-8 all-time against the Pitt Panthers. The last six of those games have come since Pitt joined the ACC, and the Hoos are just 1-5 with four straight losses. The last win came 24-19 at home in 2014. The last couple of games haven’t even been close, with Virginia falling by more than 10 points.

Last year’s game was played in a rainstorm, which seemed to affect Virginia more than Pitt. The Panthers won the battle in the trenches, dominated the line of scrimmage and won behind 229 yards and 3 TDs from RB Darrin Hall.

Will it be different this year? Expectations are high in Charlottesville after an eight win season. The Panthers finished just 7-7 last year, but won the ACC Coastal Division. From that team, the Panthers must return seven starters on offense and six on defense. They are also integrating a new offensive coordinator, Mark Whipple, and an entirely new offensive scheme.

Because of all those new starters, it may be a good thing that Virginia gets the Panthers so early. Early in the season, the Panthers may experience some growing pains with so many new faces. There is talent there to replace the departed players, but it will take time for all those guys to get comfortable.

Virginia, on the other hand, has a remarkable amount of continuity from last season. Fifteen starters return in total, and the coaching staff remains the same. The Hoos should not have the same growing pains.

Virginia on Defense

Players to Watch

#7 QB Kenny Pickett

#21 RB A.J. Davis

#2 WR Maurice Ffrench

The Panthers lack of continuity is going to be particularly noticeable on offense. The new offensive coordinator and (potentially) new offensive scheme is a big part of that. Here is what Mark Whipple did over the past three years at UMass.

Mark Whipple at UMass

Total Offense (Rank) Passing Offense (Rank) Rush Offense (Rank)
Total Offense (Rank) Passing Offense (Rank) Rush Offense (Rank)
5274 (34) 3577 (14) 16978 (102)
5194 (35) 3570 (17) 1624 (99)
4274 (109) 3080 (43) 1194 (81)

It was his second stint as the head coach there, and he helped steer them into FBS. They won just eight games in three years but as you can see, they put up some offensive numbers the past two years.

For contrast, here’s what Pitt has done over the same time period.

Pitt Offense

Total Offense (Rank) Passing Offense (Rank) Rush Offense (Rank)
Total Offense (Rank) Passing Offense (Rank) Rush Offense (Rank)
5174 (97) 1985 (120) 3191 (18)
4394 (97) 2612 (73) 1782 (85)
5808 (101) 2882 (76) 2926 (28)

That’s a vast difference. UMass did it almost entirely with the passing game. Pitt has done it almost entirely on the ground. If Whipple wants to install his high-octane, pass-heavy offense, it’s going to take time.

Pickett returns at QB for the second straight year, but he’ll have to be a different QB this year if he’s going to run Whipple’s preferred offense. He completed just 58% of his passes, averaging just 6.4 yards per attempt (94th nationally) and just 10.9 yards per completion (92nd). That’s not gonna get it done. UMass QB Ross Comis averaged 9.3 yards per attempt (6th) and 14.75 yards per completion (6th again). Is Pickett capable of that? Remains to be seen.

That lack of continuity extends to the receiving corps as well. Last year’s receptions leader, Rafael Araujo-Lopes, is gone. With just 37 catches and 10 yards per catch, perhaps it isn’t a huge loss. Ffrench returns and will almost definitely lead the team in catches this year. Ffrench averaged 14 yards per catch on his 35 receptions. He also had 19 carries for over 8 yards each and had two KR TDs. Ffrench is a big play guy, but Mack is “THE” big play guy. With 25 catches for 557 yards, his 22.3 yards per catch was second nationally.

They’ll use Ffrench in a similar way to how the Hoos used Olamide Zaccheaus. Lots of quick passes and jet sweeps, but also some deeper routes. Ffrench had 19 carries last year, averaging nearly 9 yards each.

His 2018 highlight reel is full of those jet sweeps. But he also did this, which also may have been Pickett’s best throw of the year.

This is what Mack is capable of.

That is an unbelievable catch. So good, it’s worth three angles. He also drew a pass interference on this one.

The Pitt depth chart lists three WRs. If they go with a lot of three-wide sets, then Virginia will counter with a lot of nickel. In fact, don’t be surprised if Virginia opens in a nickel. Brenton Nelson moves to the slot while Chris Moore steps in at SABRE. That actually might be the best lineup for the Hoos. The question is, who comes off? A DL or a LB? 2-4-5 or 3-3-5? If it’s a DL, then Virginia is susceptible to the run again. Considering what happened last year, maybe it’s best to bring a LB off. Jordan Mack, who has experience at OLB, could slide outside. He’s a strong pass rusher, and gives Virginia the flexibility to bring Mack and/or Snowden off the edge, or drop one/both into coverage. Pickett and his OL would be asked to make some tough reads right off the bat.

Getting back to that lack of continuity, the Panthers had two 1000 yard rushers last year. Both are gone. The leading returning rusher is V’Lique Carter, who began the season at DB, but saw action almost exclusively on offense after debuting midway through the season. He’s a WR now, but is not on the depth chart. He had just 3 receptions for 9 yards, but rushed 25 times for 202 yards and 2 TDs. He’s still learning how to play WR, but could be used in the backfield or on those jet sweeps.

On top of the depth chart at RB is 6’0 210 pound junior A.J. Davis, who had 32 carries for 142 yards last season. That’s a solid 4.2 yards per carry, but it all came in garbage time. He’s not as big as the Hall/Ollison combo was last year. He’s a different kind of runner. He’s shifty and can turn the corner. Not nearly as much of a between-the-tackles guy.

That might be a good thing, considering the young and inexperienced OL. We’re back to the lack of continuity again. Jimmy Morressey is back at OC, where he’s started 23 games and was third team All-ACC last year. The rest of the OL has combined for nine starts, five of which are by graduate transfer RT Nolan Ulizio when he was at Michigan. There could be growing pains on this OL.

The growing pains and lack of continuity mean that getting Pitt early this year might be a good thing. As the OL gels, and Pickett gets used to Whipple’s scheme, the offense should improve. But a young OL playing together for the first time in a new system that tends toward the pass against one of the best secondaries in the country may not work out so well.

Virginia on Offense

Players to Watch

#28 LB Kylan Johnson

#3 FS Damar Hamlin

#11 CB Dane Jackson

That lack of continuity exists on defense as well. Yes, the coordinator is the same and the defense scheme is unchanged. But the Panthers are replacing four of the top six tacklers along with five of the top six in sacks and TFLs. Part of that is Rashad Weaver, who tore his ACL during training camp and will miss the entire season. The Panthers hope to get a medical hardship waiver for him to save the year of eligibility. Weaver led the team in sacks and TFLs last year and was also very strong against the run. It’s impossible to replace that.

With Weaver, the DL is pretty solid. DE Patrick Jones had 4 sacks despite not starting, DT Keyshon Camp was developing into an interior presence before missing the second half of the season with an injury and DT Amir Watts has started 18 games over the past two seasons. But without Weaver, everybody has to move up in the pecking order and most of these guys aren’t ready. Watts isn’t even in the starting lineup, although the Hoos will definitely see him as Pitt will rotate Camp, Watts and sophomore Jaylen Twyman at the two DT spots. Camp is definitely the best of that group.

Jones may be the key. He’s going to have to replicate what Weaver did, not just against the pass but also in run support. If he can step into Weaver’s shoes, the DL becomes much more dangerous. If he proves to be just a situational pass rusher, then Pitt is going to be susceptible to ground attacks.

As a team last year, Virginia rushed for 173 yards per game. They had just 44 against Pitt. That includes 54 yards lost from 5 sacks, so the real rushing total was 98 yards on 21 carries. In the rain, with the OL struggling to protect Perkins, perhaps there needed to be a bigger emphasis on the ground game.

The battle between Pitt’s DL and Virginia’s OL may determine this game. Virginia’s OL is still rather young, but there’s 49 starts among the group (led by Dillon Reinkensmeyer’s 24). Like Pitt, the OL could have some growing pains, but having three returning starters from last year will help. Reinkensmeyer started mostly at OC last year and moves to RG. He’ll be asked to help new OC Olu Oluwatimi with reads and line calls. That will help as well. If Virginia can’t keep Perkins upright again, they won’t win.

Pitt also did a strong job last year of bottling up Perkins, though the rain helped too. With a group of unknowns in the backfield this year, Perkins is going to have to shoulder a big load, especially to open the season. There’s an old adage in football that “if you have two starting QBs, you have zero”. It’s not the same at RB, where “RB by committee” is a common thing. However, if you’ve got four potential starting RBs, that’s a problem.

Somebody needs to step up and take that job. It could be a different guy each week, with the coaching staff going with the hot hand and right matchups. PK Kier is bigger than the others, so he could be a good matchup against a smaller DL. Against a bigger DL, such as Pitt’s, perhaps 5’9” 200 lb Mike Hollins is a better matchup. There’s really no doubt that Hollins is the most talented of the RBs, but it’d be a big test for the true freshman. Sophomore Wayne Taulapapa appears poised to get the first shot, but he’ll also be getting his first college carry, so it’s still a big test.

Once again, the Hoos will rely on Perkins a lot in this one. With no real threat of rain, it’ll be entirely up to Pitt’s defense to slow him down. All five of the sacks from last year’s game were from players no longer there. The Panthers will need leaders to step up.

The Panther LB corps is led by MLB Elias Reynolds, who started the final seven games last year. He is the only returning starter, as the rest of the unit is dealing with that same lack of continuity. The key LB is Johnson, a graduate transfer from Florida. He was only moderately successful with the Gators, starting nine times and totalling 83 tackles. He is likely the guy who will be asked to spy on Perkins. Bottling up Perkins was key last year, and will be key again.

The Pitt secondary is the strength of the defense. There is more continuity there, as Hamlin and Jackson were both honorable mention All-ACC last year and the other CB (Jason Pinnock) moved into the starting lineup midway through the year and ended up with a team-leading two INTs and 6 pass breakups (Jackson had 14, but zero INTs). Hamlin’s real strength is in run support, though he also had two INTs.

As a unit, the secondary is on the small side. They held OZ in check a year ago, but 6’3” 215 pound Hasise Dubois had 4 catches and 6’ Terrell Jana had the best game of his career, with 3 catches for 71 yards and a TD. Big (6’4”) TE Tanner Cowley also had a 40 yard grab, by far the longest of his career. Virginia’s big receiving corps, with Dubois, Cowley and 6’1” 215 lb Joe Reed could have success over the middle against the smaller DBs. But again, that’ll require Perkins to remain upright. Here is Jana’s TD:

On this play, Pitt rushes only four so Perkins has ample time to throw. Jana runs a deep route with OZ running a short route. Jackson starts out on Jana but quickly moves off onto Zaccheaus. Safety Phil Campbell has deep coverage on Jana, but can’t get there in time. It’s impossible to know the coverage responsibilities on this play, but it seems like this is Jackson’s fault. The OLB (Saleem Brightwell) appears to be on OZ and is in good position. Jackson guesses that the pass is going to OZ, which leaves Jana wide open. Easy throw and catch for the TD. Similar combination routes seem likely to be successful again, especially with all the new faces on the Panther defense.

Success passing will open up some running lanes for Perkins and company. Perkins will run a lot of zone-read, especially early. Expect the young Pitt DEs to focus on Perkins, which could allow the young Virginia RB (whoever it is) to get going. Give one of those RBs some confidence and the young Pitt defense could be in for a long evening.

Conclusion

Both teams have question marks coming into the season. Pitt seems to have more, especially on both the OL and DL. Considering that last year’s game was essentially decided by those two Panthers units, it’s not a good sign for the Panthers.

However, the Panthers are at home, and have had Virginia’s number the past few years. Those are two advantages that could be tough to overcome. Both teams are on the young side, but Virginia has more experience, especially on the lines.

One place that Pitt could have a big advantage is special teams. Alex Kessman is one of the best kickers in the nation and made four FGs over 50 yards last year (including one against the Hoos). If it comes down to a game of FGs, Pitt has the edge. Pitt also has a returning sophomore at Punter, while Virginia is breaking in a new punter. That could end up as a big advantage in field position.

It seems each team has reasons to believe they will come out on top. But, of course, execution will be key. Last year, Pitt executed better than Virginia and came out on top. That lack of continuity from Pitt will be the difference. Virginia has more experience and more continuity. That will lead to better execution and a big road win for the Hoos.

Prediction: Virginia 20, Pitt 13