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The Big Preview: Virginia at Pitt

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Though last week’s outing against Notre Dame was surely disappointing to many Virginia Cavaliers football fans, I thought the game actually went better than I was expecting, with the Hoos playing without their QB and leader. Losing 28-3 is certainly not a good outing, but there were some good signs from the defense. Notre Dame totaled 423 yards, well below Virginia’s season average defensively (460). After giving up big play after big play to BYU (among others), Notre Dame had just four plays of over 20 yards.

The Wahoos get back to things with a road game against the Pitt Panthers, who are leading the ACC Coastal division, a game just ahead of the Wahoos. So a win by the Cavaliers would put them into a tie for the division lead and would give them the tiebreaker. Pitt is 8-2, and ranked 18th in the AP Poll. Both of their losses have come at home, to Miami and to a 6-5 Western Michigan team that is in last place in the Mid American Conference West Division.

We still do not know the status of Brennan Armstrong, and that will be the biggest question for Virginia Football until we see him back on the field. With Armstrong at the helm, this team can beat anybody, but without him this team may not beat anybody.

When: Saturday, November 20, 330PM Eastern
Where: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh
TV: ESPN2
DraftKing Odds: Pitt -14.5

Virginia on Defense

Last week’s game dropped Virginia’s offense from first in the nation to fifth. Four teams jumped the Wahoos, one of which is Pittsburgh.

Kenny Pickett has become a down-ballot Heisman candidate, in part due to his numbers and in part due to Pitt’s lofty record. (Armstrong’s numbers are no worse, and he’s been on very few Heisman candidate lists.) Pickett is third in the nation in total offense and fifth in passing (Armstrong is second and third, despite missing a game). Pickett is also seventh in passing efficiency, well above Armstrong (27th).

This is the play on which Pickett broke the all-time passing record for Pitt. Don’t forget, Dan Marino played there. That ball is 45 yards on a rope and Pickett doesn’t even fully step into it.

The receiver on this play is Jordan Addison, who is one of the best WRs in college football this season. He is tied for first in the nation with 11 TD catches, plus he’s ninth in receiving yards and 28th in receptions. Addison has also taken some turns as a punt returner, and he would be in the top five in punt return average if he had enough to qualify.

Addison is matched up here with a safety in single coverage. That is a matchup he is going to win every time. We’ve seen too much of this kind of thing from Virginia this season, such LBs in single coverage on a slot WR. Can’t have that against this offense, or it’ll be another big night for the opposing offense.

Pickett has faced Virginia twice already, without much success. He’s completed just 50% of his passes for 246 yards, with one TD and a pair of INTs. He did manage a win in a game he attempted just 14 passes, because Pitt’s Darrin Hall rushed for over 200 yards and three TDs back in 2018. Gee, does that sound familiar?

This year, Pitt’s run game is similar to Virginia’s in that it’s reasonably successful, but maybe not utilized enough. Though their run/pass ratio is more even than Virginia’s much of that is due to several blowout wins. Against New Hampshire, the Panthers had 49 rush attempts against just 33 pass attempts. This was a 77-7 win for the Panthers, so the Panthers threw just two passes in the fourth quarter. In their loss to Miami, the Panthers rushed just 23 times against 56 pass attempts.

Miami opened up a big lead with three first quarter TDs, forcing Pitt to be one-dimensional. This is the same formula Virginia has used several times this season. With little threat to run the ball, Miami could sit back in coverage. This was the end result of that, as Pickett tried to do too much.

That Pitt running game is led by sophomore Israel Abanikanda. The 5’11” 215 pounder averages over five yards per carry and rarely goes down to the first hit. Vincent Davis will also get some touches. He’s a smaller back, with more speed and big play ability. But he needs space to operate. Abanikanda creates his own space. Pickett can also make plays with his legs.

Duke brings pressure, but doesn’t get there. Pickett doesn’t have anywhere to go with the ball, but the field is wide open. He takes off and has a pretty easy 22 yard TD run. Virginia was unable to get any pressure on Notre Dame, and really haven’t been able to generate any pressure all season. The Hoos rank 121st in sacks (out of 128). They likely won’t bring much pressure. They’ll be content to sit back in coverage and play a bend-but-don’t-break defense.

Anthony Johnson gets the pick and he’s in single coverage on the outside. It’s an overthrow from Jack Coan, but wonderful coverage from Johnson. Look at the two safeties 30 yards downfield, even though there’s only the one receiver running deep. What are they doing? How is that useful? Noah Taylor is able to get some pressure, forcing Coan to step up, which may have contributed to the overthrow. That was Virginia’s lone QB hurry of the game.

With the personnel Virginia has, this is the defense they must play. Perhaps there is a different formation or lineup that might’ve been different. But with this team, in this 3-3-5 defense, there simply isn’t enough there to play the aggressive schemes that Bronco Mendenhall and Nick Howell want to play. That’s been beaten over and over again this season, to the tune of the 120th ranked defense in the nation.

But again, there were signs last week. Virginia did not see to bring as much pressure, generally sticking with four pass rushers. This meant more coverage, and fewer big plays allowed. They still allowed 249 yards rushing, but that’s actually an improvement over the past two games.

Pitt’s offense this season has been light years better than Notre Dame’s, so the same schemes may not work as well. But Pitt passing attack has been a big play machine this season, so taking those away will be important. If they can do that, and also bottle up the running game, they have a shot. Big if.

Virginia on Offense

As noted, Virginia has a top five offense this season, as does Pitt. So why is Pitt 8-2 and ranked in the top 20? Because their defense is good and Virginia’s is not. Pitt’s ranks 39th in total defense and 44th in scoring defense. The most important number is that they rank third in sacks and eighth in TFLs.

Coming into last week, Virginia was averaging over 540 yards per game. They totaled just 278 against the Irish. The absence of Brennan Armstrong completely changed the game. Facing a very good and very aggressive defense was not going to go well for a rookie QB getting his first extended action. The end result was seven Notre Dame sacks.

The Irish do a decent job here of disguising the pass rush, and Woolfolk doesn’t read it. Nobody cuts off a route, or comes back to the ball. Woolfolk kind of runs into the pass rush. This sack is on the OL for not picking up the stunt, but it’s also on Woolfolk a bit for not reading the pressure. Armstrong has the experience to make a quick read and get rid of the ball, or perhaps get out of the pocket before it gets there.

The Irish likely do not bring quite as much pressure if Armstrong is back there. They just weren’t afraid of Woolfolk, so there was little risk on their part.

For the game, Virginia threw 33 passes, against 30 runs. But, considering the 7 sacks and several scrambles, that ratio is heavily weighted towards the pass. Virginia first two drives totaled zero first downs and gained just four total yards. Woolfolk was 2-2 for 10 yards and rushed once for 3 yards. There were two other runs, each gaining a single yard, and Woolfolk was sacked once. Virginia also had two false starts on the second drive, which culminated in this sack.

The first big third down of Woolfork’s career, Robert Anae has to know Notre Dame will bring pressure. The OL actually does a decent job of picking up the pass rush, and Woolfolk has a bit of time. But, again, none of the receivers run any kind of hot route. Nobody breaks off a route to give Woolfolk an easy throw. Four receivers against a blitzing defense, and nobody is even remotely open. Not exactly putting Woolfolk in a position to succeed.

Pitt’s defense is arguably better and more aggressive than Notre Dame’s. They are certainly more successful, statistically speaking, than Notre Dame. They have been beaten though. Western Michigan amassed over 500 yards, and Miami was close to 500 as well. Both were far more successful throwing the ball than running it. If you can keep the QB upright, you can make plays. Though they are 39th in total defense, they are just 87th in passing defense. Remember that sacks count as rush yards.

This was last week against UNC. Pitt initially brings just four pass rushers, with another sitting in the middle acting as a spy on Sam Howell. When he sees a rush lane open, he comes on the delayed blitz and Howell has nowhere to go.

As you can see in the clip above, Pitt runs a 4-3 defense. But they bring pressure from the LBs a lot. The sack above came from Mike LB SirVocea Dennis. He is one of seven Pitt defenders with multiple sacks on the season.

This is also Dennis making things happen in the backfield. Dennis is the guy to watch on every play. He is tied for first on the team in tackles, he’s third in TFLs, and has chipped in two sacks, an INT and a blocked kick.

This is a veteran unit. The only starter with no starts heading into this season, is DE Habakkuk Baldonado. And he is tied for 18th in the nation in sacks per game. Baldonado did not play last year due to an injury, but was a big part of the 2019 unit which led the nation in sacks.

Armstrong’s availability for this game is unknown. If he plays, look for the Virginia offense to be back to what was the number-one offense in the country. If Armstrong is out again, Pitt will do much the same that Notre Dame did and Virginia will likely struggle to score points again.

Conclusion

This Pitt team is solid on both sides of the football. Again, there is a reason why they are 8-2 and ranked in the top 20. Virginia has been too inconsistent defensively, and the offense without Armstrong couldn’t get anything done.

If Armstrong plays, Virginia will move the ball and score some points. Pitt’s defense is good, but so is the Virginia offense. Even so, Virginia’s defense has been so poor on the road that I couldn’t predict a win. If Armstrong does not play, or if he’s significantly impaired, Virginia has virtually no chance at beating a good team on the road.

Prediction:

Without Armstrong: Panthers 40, Hoos 10

With (a moderately healthy) Armstrong: Panthers 40, Hoos 31

(season record: 7-3)