Prediction: Panthers offense to keep rolling in Virginia


Pitt cornerback Avonte Maddox gets drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles. (TPN file photo)

One week after defeating Paul Johnson and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi and the Panthers will have to harness a Bronco — Bronco Mendenhall, that is.

Pittsburgh travels to Charlottesville, Virginia, Saturday, Oct. 15, at 12:30 p.m. to take on Mendenhall, the first-year head coach of the Virginia Cavaliers.

The Cavaliers have been fairly unimpressive this season, with their worst moment of the season coming in their Week 1 home loss to FCS school Richmond. But the team features a talented quarterback in Kurt Benkert, and will look to take advantage of Pitt’s weak pass defense.

Here’s how things will play out on Saturday:

New QB in town

Over the past two seasons, when the Panthers have taken on the Cavaliers, they’ve gone up against quarterback Matt Johns. Johns is still on the roster, but is no longer the starter under center.

Instead, Benkert beat Johns out for the starting job in training camp. A transfer from East Carolina, Benkert has 13 touchdowns and six interceptions on the season.

Narduzzi is complimentary of the senior’s quick adjustment into a new system.

“I give Kurt a lot of credit for coming in and doing what he’s done because it’s not easy to
transfer in there in your senior year,” Narduzzi said at his Wednesday media teleconference.

Benkert has been most dangerous this year when scrambling out of the pocket and throwing deep. He is mobile, but his head coach prefers for Benkert to pass the ball before he thinks about running.

“We liked the chance of extending plays, which is what he does natural, which is what we have fostered and developed,” Mendenhall said Wednesday. “But we were working there from a starting place that was quite different, meaning he wanted to do that anyway, so run really is the second or third option.”

This could cause trouble for Pitt’s defensive backs, who have had difficulty defending receivers this year –– particularly when the quarterback has ample time.

Youth injection?

Pitt’s pass defense has been anemic this season.

The Panthers even struggled against Georgia Tech, who came into last Saturday’s game with the third-worst passing offense in the nation.

For the first time in weeks, Pitt shook things up in the defensive backfield with the release of Monday’s depth chart, adding first-year cornerbacks Damar Hamlin and Therran Coleman as third-string corners.

“Just thought I would mess with you guys,” Narduzzi told reporters at his Monday press conference. “Shake it up this week and throw them out there.”

One of the potential reasons for the shift is the health of junior starting cornerback Avonte Maddox, who left Saturday’s game against the Yellow Jackets after appearing to hurt his wrist. While he is still listed on the depth chart, he’s listed as doubtful to play on Pitt’s injury report.

If Hamlin and Coleman play, they will both lose their redshirt status for the season, removing an extra year of eligibility. Narduzzi says they’ve been nearing playing time the entire season.

“They are just getting closer,” Narduzzi said Monday.

If Maddox can’t play, redshirt freshman Dane Jackson will likely start opposite senior Ryan Lewis. Jackson replaced Maddox against Georgia Tech and impressed his head coach in his first game action.

“You look at Dane’s first play in the game, Dane did a nice job,” Narduzzi said Monday. “It wasn’t like he was tentative. I think the first play he came in, it was run his way and he stuck his head in and dove in the pile and got in on the action. So you didn’t see a timid guy out there.”

Air opportunity

Like Pitt’s pass defense, Virginia has struggled to stop offenses through the air.

The Cavaliers have actually allowed more passing yards per game — 309.6, last in the ACC — than the Panthers, who have surrendered 302.3 per game.

Pitt quarterback Nathan Peterman has been locked in lately, and Narduzzi said a combination of pass protection and good decision-making has been key.

“Our offense has done a great job of protecting him on the sack part of it, but he’s done a
good job of getting rid of the ball, putting it where he can, and rushing it at times so we don’t give up a sack,” Narduzzi said Wednesday. “Maybe he takes a hit at times to give the receivers time to get open.”

Peterman is completing 65 percent of his passes on the season, good for third in the conference, and the redshirt senior has thrown only two interceptions. He’ll try to carve up a team on Saturday that has been bad statistically, but has its head coach excited — as the Cavaliers defense forced five interceptions against Duke quarterback Daniel Jones last week.

“[There’s] a lot of continued advancement in scheme understanding, technical development, personal skills and just simply consistency,” Mendenhall said Wednesday. “And it’s fun to see the progress being made and the growth that’s happening with still a long, long, long ways to go.”

PREDICTION: Virginia is on a two-game winning streak and is playing at home, but that’s about all the Cavaliers have going for them in this matchup. Pitt’s roster is more complete as a whole and has looked more impressive while facing better competition than Virginia. But the Panthers’ defense just isn’t consistent enough to allow for a blowout.

Pitt 40, Virginia 31

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