Both the Pitt and Virginia programs are having surprising seasons so far. For the Panthers, it’s because of their relentless disappointments and their revolving door situation at the quarterback position. But for the Cavaliers it’s because they are currently 5-2 overall and 2-1 in ACC play — much better than their expected underwhelming season.
The Panthers and the Cavaliers scored a combined 76 points in their matchup in Charlottesville last year — 35 of which came in the opening 13 minutes of the game. Fans should expect a competitive game between these two, but not an offensive onslaught similar to last year.
Many football experts and The Pitt News staff members pegged the Cavaliers to finish last in the ACC coastal and have a pitiful season at best. With the way things are trending for the Cavaliers, finishing last in the coastal is certainly not likely.
The Cavaliers’ seniors are responsible for much of the team’s unforeseen success. It begins at the quarterback position with senior Kurt Benkert — a transfer from East Carolina University in his second season at the helm of the Cavaliers’ offense.
Benkert was a pleasant surprise in the 2016 season, finishing with nearly a two to one touchdown-interception ratio, and this year is not much different. Benkert is completing 62 percent of his passes and has totaled 15 touchdowns and just four interceptions in seven games.
Benkert may have a relatively easy time finding his receivers during Saturday’s game, in large part due to the absence of senior cornerback Avonte Maddox. In Pitt’s matchup with Duke, he landed awkwardly on his arm and is out with an upper extremity injury. Junior safety Jordan Whitehead has aided in keeping the secondary competitive since his return, but he will have to step up majorly to fill in for Maddox.
On the defensive side of the ball, Virginia has been a pleasant surprise as well, despite the Cavaliers getting waxed at home, 41-10, by Boston College. The Cavaliers’ defense surrenders an average of 23 points per game, a statistic that ranks them at No. 47 in the nation.
This success on defense stems from the leadership of senior safety Quin Blanding and senior linebacker Micah Kiser. Blanding leads the team with 74 total tackles, and Kiser is just behind him with 70. Standout first-year defensive back Brenton Nelson, who leads the team with three interceptions, also contributes to the overall success.
The Cavaliers run defense is stingy – allowing just four rushing yards per attempt on average and only allowing their opponents to amass more than 200 rushing yards just twice all season.
This staunch defensive front will be combated by the Panthers’ new threat — junior running back Darrin Hall. Hall was a marquee piece in the Panthers’ success against the Blue Devils, and will need to be just as intense this week if the Panthers intend on extending their winning streak.
Prediction: All signs are indicating the Cavaliers will march into Heinz Field Saturday and deliver the Panthers’ their sixth loss of the year. Virginia’s defense is better, its quarterback is better and the team has faced and defeated superior opponents this year.
But if the Panthers capitalize on Hall’s running abilities, redshirt sophomore quarterback Ben DiNucci can put more productive scoring drives together and the fractured secondary can force Benkert to make a few mistakes, the Panthers could keep the game competitive into the fourth quarter.
Virginia: 30, Pitt: 24