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Virginia Football Opponent Preview: Pittsburgh Panthers

The reigning ACC champions will aim to retain their crown and fill gaping holes at quarterback and wide receiver.

Virginia v Pittsburgh Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

In their tenth game of the 2022 campaign, the Virginia Cavaliers will take on the reigning ACC champion Pittsburgh Panthers. Pitt won the ACC in convincing fashion last fall in one of the best seasons in recent program history. They’ll have holes to fill this season after the departures of Kenny Pickett and Jordan Addison, but the Panthers are widely expected to contend at the top of the conference once again this fall.

2021 Recap

Record: 11-3

Postseason: Won ACC Championship 45-21 vs. Wake Forest; Lost Peach Bowl 31-21 vs. Michigan State

It’s not an exaggeration to call Pitt’s ACC-championship-winning season last year the program’s best in decades. Led by an elite offense and high-pressure defense, the Panthers finished the regular season 10-2, knocked off Wake Forest by a convincing 24-point margin in the ACC championship game, finished the year ranked 13th in the AP Poll, and earned a New Year’s Six bowl berth against Michigan State — which they still almost won despite their star quarterback Kenny Pickett opting to sit out and prep for the NFL Draft.

Pitt finished the season 11-3. The program hadn’t won double-digit games since 2009, where they rode Big East OPOY Dion Lewis (who retired from the NFL in 2021) to a 9-1 start and cracked the AP top 10 at one point before sputtering down the stretch. They hadn’t won 11 games since 1981, when a little-known QB named Dan Marino led the Panthers to a last-second Sugar Bowl victory over Georgia.

The stars of the show were Pickett and wide receiver Jordan Addison. Pickett threw for 4,319 yards and 42 touchdowns to just 7 interceptions; Addison picked up 1,593 receiving yards (fourth in the NCAA) and 17 receiving TDs (first in the NCAA). Defensively, they allowed a lot of big plays but were solid overall, finishing the year 17th in defensive EPA/play. Habakkuk Baldonado led the team with nine sacks and added 12 TFLs; Calijah Kancey chipped in with 13 TFLs and seven sacks.

2022 Preview

Key returners: WR Jared Wayne, OT Carter Warren, DT Calijah Kancey, DE Habakkuk Baldonado, QB Nick Patti

Key departures: QB Kenny Pickett, WR Jordan Addison

Key new faces: Offensive Coordinator Frank Cignetti, QB Kedon Slovis, WR Konata Mumpfield

Riding the high of an ACC title, Pitt suffered two key offseason losses that will make it a challenge to retain their crown. The departure of quarterback Kenny Pickett was expected. After spending five years rewriting the Pitt record books, the Heisman finalist declared for the NFL draft and was the first quarterback off the board. Pickett stayed close to home when the Steelers selected him 20th overall.

The loss that stings more is the departure of superstar wide receiver Jordan Addison. As a sophomore in 2021, Addison hauled in 100 receptions for 1,593 yards and 17 touchdowns and took home the Fred Biletnikoff Award for the nation’s most outstanding wideout. When he transferred to USC amid rumors of massive NIL compensation, it left the Panthers understandably frustrated.

The ripple effects of Addison’s transfer were massive. Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi has accused USC of NIL violations and called for more restrictions on NIL collectives. Addison claimed in an interview this week that he felt like his name had been “dragged through the mud.” No matter the reason for his decision to leave, the fracas around Addison’s departure simply added insult to injury for a Pitt squad that will enter 2022 without its two best players from last season’s ACC champions.

Pitt will be worse this season, but that isn’t to say that they won’t be good. They have quite a bit of continuity on offense outside of Pickett and Addison — the trio of running backs that combined for 1,500 yards last year is still in Pittsburgh, as is most of their offensive line. Jared Wayne, the Robin to Addison’s Batman last fall, will likely be elevated to the WR1 role, and there’s excitement around transfers Konata Mumpfield and Bub Means.

The battle to watch, though, will be at quarterback. Two players will contend to replace Pickett: returner Nick Patti and USC transfer Kedon Slovis. Slovis has the raw talent; Patti has experience in Narduzzi’s system. The head coach has already declared an open competition for the QB job, and the two have alternated reps at practice.

Defensively, Pitt lost a few players (especially at linebacker) but the overall framework of their defense will be the same: get pressure on the QB as much as possible, and if you get burned for leaving your corners on an island, so be it. They retain two elite players up front in defensive tackle Calijah Kancey and defensive end Habakkuk Baldonado.

Series History

UVA’s all-time record vs. Pitt: 4-9

Last meeting: November 20, 2021 — Pittsburgh 48, Virginia 38

Virginia’s bout with Pitt at Heinz Field last November saw the unstoppable force of Kenny Pickett’s offense meet a very movable object: UVA’s defense. Pickett threw for 202 yards and four touchdowns — and that was just on completions to Jordan Addison. He racked up 340 yards overall on 26-41 passing, including a game-sealing 62-yard TD completion to Addison in the final minutes of the game to give Pitt a 10-point lead.

Virginia QB Brennan Armstrong did an admirable job keeping the ‘Hoos in it: he threw for 487 yards and three touchdowns, and one interception on a Hail Mary at the end of the first half. However, his defense conceded 509 total yards, his running backs picked up just 61 yards, and his special teams gave up a kickoff return TD. It was an uphill battle that Armstrong’s heroics couldn’t overcome. Hopefully, things will be different this fall.