Saturday’s Pitt-Virginia football game was a tale of two halves.
The Panthers (5-2 overall, 2-1 ACC) recovered from a shootout of a first half in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which the two teams scored a combined 63 points, holding the Cavaliers (2-4 overall, 1-1 ACC) to just three second-half points en route to a 45-31 road win.
The game began with less than ideal circumstances for Pitt.
The Panthers appeared to have stopped Virginia on its first offensive drive, but two straight Pitt penalties on fourth down and a fourth-down conversion gave the Cavaliers new life.
Aided by a 25-yard catch from Joe Reed, the Cavaliers entered the red zone, eventually finishing the drive with a four-yard touchdown run by Albert Reid.
After a three-and-out on its first drive, Pitt would even the game up on its second series. The Panthers built up momentum on a 16-yard run by James Conner and a pass interference penalty committed on wide receiver Aaron Mathews.
Then, quarterback Nathan Peterman connected with wide receiver Jester Weah, who spun off his defender after the catch and ran into the endzone for a 38-yard touchdown.
The Cavaliers retook the lead on their next possession, converting on third down twice before tailback Taquan Mizell broke off a 44-yard rush for a score.
But the lead would only last a matter of seconds. Quadree Henderson received the ensuing kickoff at the seven yard line and twisted through the coverage for a 93-yard kick return touchdown, his second of the year, evening the score at 14 in the first quarter.
Virginia responded immediately, as quarterback Kurt Benkert heaved a deep ball to wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus, who burnt safety Terrish Webb for a 74-yard touchdown catch.
Pitt and Virginia traded three-and-outs, but the Panthers eventually tied the game up in the second quarter. Pitt utilized third-down conversions on catches by Tre Tipton and Scott Orndoff to set up a one-yard touchdown run by Conner to even the score at 21.
The Cavaliers once again took the lead, though, as the Ryan Lewis and Philippe Motley each committed pass interference on the next Virginia drive. Reid capped the drive off with his second touchdown run from one yard out to give the Cavaliers the 28-21 lead with 5:57 left in the half.
Pitt once against received a boost from a kick return, as this time, Rafael Araujo-Lopes returned a kickoff 69 yards to the Cavaliers’ 26-yard line. And when it looked like Pitt would have to settle for a field goal, Pat Narduzzi gambled and went for a fourth-and-two, which Conner converted by leaping over the line.
The redshirt junior running back finished the drive with his second one-yard touchdown run of the game, knotting the score at 28 with 40 seconds remaining in the half.
Conner finished the game with 90 yards on 20 carries and two receptions for 28 yards.
That 40 seconds convinced Bronco Mendenhall to try for a late score, but the decision backfired.
Benkert fired a ball directly to Pitt safety Jordan Whitehead, who picked it off and returned the interception 59 yards for a touchdown. Just like that, the Panthers had a 35-28 lead with four seconds left in the half.
Pitt drove the ball down to the Virginia 37-yard line on the opening drive of the second half, but the drive stalled at the 30 and kicker Chris Blewitt’s 47-yard field goal attempt sailed just right of the upright.
Surprisingly, after nine touchdowns combined in the first half, no points were scored in the entire third quarter and the score remained 35-28 Pitt.
The Panthers finally ended the stalemate in the fourth.
Following a third down stop by Tyrique Jarrett, Pitt put together an eight play, 81-yard drive that ended with a five-yard touchdown on a shovel pass from Peterman to fullback George Aston. Aston’s fifth touchdown of the season gave the Panthers a 42-28 lead with 9:47 remained in the game.
With Ejuan Price out late in the game after suffering an apparent middle body injury, Narduzzi made an interesting personnel decision, bringing Conner in to play defensive end. Conner, a star defensive end in high school, spun past an offensive lineman and put a punishing hit on Benkert. The near-sack forced an overthrow and the Cavaliers ended up punting.
Pitt and Virginia traded late field goals, as the Panthers would win by two touchdowns to improve to 5-2 on the season and 2-1 in conference play.
Pitt has next week off, and return to action Thursday Oct. 27, when they’ll take on the Virginia Tech Hokies at Heinz Field. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m and the game will be broadcast on ESPN.