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Postgame Wrap: Pittsburgh 14, Virginia 3

Despite a heroic defensive effort, Virginia dropped its ACC opener at Pitt. Here's why:

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The Virginia Cavaliers fell to Pittsburgh 14-3 in their ACC opener on Homecoming at Heinz Field.  In an often sloppy game, the stagnant Wahoo offense failed to do enough to win, managing just a single 4th quarter field goal.  Two early Pitt touchdowns scored off UVA turnovers easily held up, sending the Hoos home with a loss in its first road game of the year.  With the loss, Virginia falls to 2-2 (0-1 ACC), while Pittsburgh improves to 3-1 (2-1 ACC).

The Panther did their scoring early, then simply hung on as the teams mostly traded punts and turnovers for the remainder of the day.  After two early stops by the Virginia defense, Pitt was forced to punt 8 minutes into the game.  Back to receive, Dominique Terrell inexplicably chased down the ball as it bounced and rolled into UVA territory until it brushed against his leg.  The Panthers recovered on the UVA 19 yard line and punched the ball in for a score.

On UVA's ensuing drive, Watford fumbled a bad center-quarterback exchange. Pittsburgh recovered on the UVA 18 yard line and, once again, punched the ball in for a score and an early 14-0 lead.

The Wahoo defense wouldn't allow any more points, but the early two touchdowns were plenty for Pitt.  UVA broke the shutout in the fourth quarter, but couldn't manage more than a field goal.

To properly recap the loss, it's necessary to look at the units completely separately; defense: good....offense: bad.  Here's some quick takes on what went right and what went wrong.

Offense: Bad: Facing a Panther team that allowed 55 points against Duke last week, it's impossible to overstate the struggles of Steve Fairchild's offense.  The Hoos failed to get any type of sustained drive going, whether through the air or on the ground.  David Watford finished 15 for 36 for 122 yards (thats a 3.4 yard average per completion).  Watford's struggles were exacerbated by dropped passes by his receiving corps.

While Virginia's strength was expected to be its running game, Kevin Parks found nothing on the ground.  He picked up just 34 yards on 16 carries.  The Hoos combined for 65 rushing yards, with 21 coming on a reverse to Dominique Terrell.  With the passing game unable to stretch the field, Parks and co. were easy pickings.  Smoke Mizzell sat out his second straight week with an injury sustained against Oregon.

The Hoos were 3 of 18 on third down, and turned the ball over 3 times on fourth downs.  (Virginia passed up the opportunity to attempt field goals of 44 and 45 yards, but were stuffed on 4th down and short both times).

Steve Fairchild's debut has gone about as poorly as possible.  The read-option offense has been a misnomer, as Watford has rarely used the "option" to keep the ball and run.  And, despite a group of talented receivers, the team has not been capable of moving the ball downfield, limited by Watford's inexperience and the coaches' consistently conservative playcalling.  SOMETHING has to change, or the Hoos just won't score any points this year.

Defense: Good: Seriously, the D was great.  Pitt's offense is legit, led by a talented fifth-year senior in Tom Savage, and a scary good WR tandem of Tyler Boyd and Devin Street.  Duke's defense isn't exactly the gold standard, but the Panthers put up 58 points in last week's victory in Durham.  Today, they managed just 14, both set up by UVA turnovers.  Essentially, the defense pitched a shutout.

Savage finished with 191 yards, but passed just 13 for 31, and was intercepted twice.  The running game finished with just 8 yards (taking out sacks, running backs carried 19 times for 53 yards).  After their two turnover-aided scores, Pitt rarely even seriously threatened, except for one drive that ended with a missed 36 yard field goal.  The secondary held its own against a strong group of receivers, limiting Boyd and Street to a combined 11 receptions, many of them well-defended.  And the front four continued to dominate, sacking Savage 7 times and hitting him far more.

Max Valles had a huge game, notching 3 sacks, while Brent Urban and Eli Harold continued to play at a high level, picking up a sack each.  Maurice Canady also came away with two sacks.

Anthony "Big Play" Harris provided two much-needed (albeit squandered) sparks, forcing a fumble and grabbing an interception on consecutive drives.  Demetrius Nicholson also added a pick inside the Pitt 40 yard line...though it was also not converted for points.

As much as the offense has struggled, Wahoo fans have a legitimate reason for hope this year, as Jon Tenuta's defense will keep the team in games.

Mental Errors: One factor that we've highlighted since last season are the mental errors that the Hoos have made.  Last year, Virginia went on a 4 game streak in which the team out-gained its opponents, but scored less points.  UVA returned today to its propensity to hand game-changing plays to its opponents when Terrell's mistake gave Pitt an early touchdown, and tons of momentum.  The margin for error simply does not exist for mental errors like that.  Terrell has been aggressive all year, often passing up fair catches with the coverage team bearing down on him; today, his propensity to get his hands (and legs) on the ball hurt the team.  The fumbled snap minutes later was another mental mistake.  Those two moments were good for 14 points...and the game.

The Play of the Day: Yes, it was a punt.  With the UVA offense stuck at its own 13 yard line, Alec Vozenilek came in a sent the ball all the way to the Pittsburgh 10, a booming 77 yard net punt.  That's the 4th longest in UVA history, and the longest since 1977.  It also directly led to the team's only points when the defense forced a three-and-out, and the offense took over in plus territory and moved into range for a 32 yard field goal.

Decision, Decisions: Down 14-3 with 8 minutes to play, Virginia had its first true sustained drive of the game, bringing the ball from its own 20 to the Pittsburgh 3 yard line.  Facing 4th and 2 on the 3 with 3:40 to play, Coach London decided to go for the touchdown rather than kicking the field goal to cut the lead to 14-6.  Watford's pass to Jake McGee fell incomplete, and the coaching staff immediately endured criticism from the TV commentators, as well as Wahoo fans.  It's an interesting decision, and I hoped to highlight this for further discussion.

Despite the result, the decision was the correct one (though the play call had plenty to be desired).  It's an oft-repeated axiom that coaches should attempt to "extend the game"; however, this is a fallacy, as "time" is really not relevant here. UVA needed two scores, at least 1 had to be a touchdown, and the Hoos had the best chance of getting those points right there on 4th and 2.  Here's a brief(-ish) digression on why:

"Extend the game" - Option A: Make FG, Get ball back, drive ~70 yards for TD, make 2-pt conversion, win in OT.

"Go for it" - Option B: Convert 4th and 2/Score TD, make 2-pt conversion, get ball back, drive ~40 yards into field goal range and make FG, win in OT.  (OR Score TD, get ball back, drive ~70 yards and score go-ahead TD - regardless of 2 point conversion).

Option B has a few important advantages.  Most notably, in a game in which the Hoos had struggled mightily to move the ball, they had a reasonable opportunity to score the needed touchdown right in front of them.  Kicking the FG may have technically "extended the game," but the odds of a long touchdown drive were not good.  Ian Frye has already made a 53 yard field goal this season; with a touchdown, the odds of moving into field-goal range were much more attainable.  I'd prefer a somewhat risky move to put the Hoos into a reasonable situation to win over a move that would keep the game technically in reach, but require another seemingly impossible touchdown drive.

Additionally, option B provides more paths to victory.  First, UVA gains the potential to score two touchdowns and avoid overtime altogether.  Second, UVA's potential second drive would be conducted with the knowledge of whether the two-point conversion was successful.  (If the Hoos make the TD on 4th and 2 but miss the conversion, the team knows it needs another TD.  If the Hoos kick the field goal, then drive for a TD but miss the conversion, they'd need a time machine to return to 4th and 2 and go for the end zone).

London has taken a lot of flak for his decision-making, the vast majority of it well-deserved.  Fans will likely still disagree, and I'm glad to discuss further.  But here, with the advice of Tom O'Brien and Larry Lewis, London made the right call.

What's Next?: After the team's first road game of the year, UVA quickly returns home to the friendly confines of Scott Stadium to conclude its out-of-conference schedule against Ball State at noon on Saturday.  The Cardinals are 3-1 this year, but have yet to be tested - they won big against Illinois State, Army, and Eastern Michigan, and dropped a one score game at North Texas.

Ball State won't be a VMI-style gimme by any means.  But, if the Hoos want to stay on track for 6 wins and a bowl, they must take care of business against lesser competition at home.  A win would move UVA to 3-2, meaning a 3-5 ACC record would be good enough for a bowl.  We'll have plenty of coverage to get you ready for that matchup, while also continuing to wrap things up on UVA's 14-3 loss at Pitt.