The Virginia football team hit the road for an ACC game to open the season on Saturday and showed some mettle to pick up a win for the first time in Pittsburgh. Despite trailing by one at the half, the Hoos used a strong second-half defensive performance to hold the Panthers scoreless and cruise to a 30-14 victory.
Before we move on to Friday’s game against William & Mary, let’s take a look back at three takeaways and two observations from the season opener.
This win was a big deal: Virginia’s season-opening win was a big one, no ifs-ands-or-buts about it. It gives the Hoos a leg-up in the Coastal Division, sets the tone for the season. Pittsburgh was a place that Virginia had never won, and the Hoos hadn’t beaten the Panthers since Bronco Mendenhall took over the program. In a division that is well known for absolute chaos, any conference win should be celebrated. I don’t see a scenario where this game isn’t important in determining the Coastal champ. Honestly, Pitt did some things well that, if improved upon, will make them a very tough out this season.
Hell yes, special teams: Well, hello, Brian Delaney!! Virginia missed a couple big field goals last season, including one in OT from 35 yards at Georgia Tech that gave the Yellow Jackets a shot at the win. Delaney was solid after taking over for AJ Mejia (who went 1-4, all from the 30-39 yard range), going 12-for-16 on the season. Last year, he missed three from the 30-39 yard range, and one from 50+ yards (understandable).
While Delaney was solid from 40-49 yards (3-for-3 last year), seeing him confidently drill field goals from 36, 39, and 45 yards in the opener was comforting. The 40-yarder he missed was due to a bad hold, so we’ll let him of the hook for that one.
Delaney hitting consistently from that range is hugeeeeee— Olamide Zaccheaus (@LlamaDay) September 1, 2019
Beyond the field goal kicking, special teams as a whole were outstanding. New punter Nash Griffin appears to be a good follow up for Lester Coleman, booming four punts against Pitt with an average of 45.5 yards per punt. He also dropped three of the four inside the 20, and the Panthers only tried to return one punt...and got zero yards.
On the kick offs, it cannot be understated how big Delaney was in putting them all but one out of reach of dynamic return man Maurice Ffrench. The one that was returned picked up 26 yards. One thing to work on: one of the kickoffs went out of bounds. If that’s the one complaint, things went pretty well.
In addition to the success kicking, Noah Taylor got his hand on a punt, blocking it and giving the Hoos outstanding field position. The ensuing drive ended in a touchdown from Chris Sharp and gave Virginia a 10-0 lead.
A clean win: It’s easy to forget that this was the first game of the season, primarily because it’s unusual to face an ACC foe at this point of the season. Other Week 1 (and Week 0 if you’re Miami/Florida) games were rife with turnovers and penalties, but the Hoos finished with a +2 turnover margin (in addition to the blocked punt) and just three penalties against for a total of 35 yards. Mendenhall has always emphasized a disciplined team, but the Hoos have consistently showed over the last season that they won’t (frequently) beat themselves with dumb turnovers.
When you look across the league, Virginia Tech’s five turnovers torpedoed them in its loss to Boston College, and Louisville’s inability to hold onto the ball (three fumbles) cost them an opportunity at home against No. 9 Notre Dame. Florida State? Two fumbles (and one failed fumble pick up) as Boise State came from behind for a win in Tallahassee.
Virginia was smart with the ball, and minus Zane Zandier’s two personal fouls, smart with their plays. That will help win games over the course of the season.
The run game needs to have a bigger role: Virginia didn’t use the run game very much, and the latest depth chart still had a bunch of “or” listed at the back positions. Wayne Taulapapa racked up 66 yards on just 10 carries — and punched in a touchdown with 30 seconds left — and was strong up the middle. Establishing the run will give Perkins a little more time (ideally) and help with this next one...
Hello, please hit Bryce Perkins less: It’s going to be a long season. Perkins took a bunch of hits on Saturday, but Pitt is one of the more physical teams in the conference. Part of it was more jarring that it really is because the first game of the season isn’t usually this brutal, but things get increasingly difficult over the season if Perkins gets injured. As Taulapapa and the rushers grow (and Billy Kemp/Tavares Kelly back in the Zaccheaus role after missing the first game due to a rules violation), Perkins should have to carry less weight.