Panthers up for the challenge in football opener

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Panthers up for the challenge in football opener

Pitt’s backfield will likely be led by junior halfback AJ Davis (21).

Pitt’s backfield will likely be led by junior halfback AJ Davis (21).

Thomas Yang | Visual Editor

Pitt’s backfield will likely be led by junior halfback AJ Davis (21).

Thomas Yang | Visual Editor

Thomas Yang | Visual Editor

Pitt’s backfield will likely be led by junior halfback AJ Davis (21).

By Trent Leonard, Senior Staff Writer

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While college football programs like Penn State and LSU typically start their seasons by playing traditional “cupcake” opponents like Idaho and Georgia Southern, this year Pitt decided to take a different approach for its 2019 season opener. The Panthers will instead play an immensely consequential division game against one of the toughest opponents on their schedule, the Virginia Cavaliers.

Pitt fans have grown accustomed to the Panthers starting their season off on an easy note  — in recent years, their opening day opponents have included Delaware, Youngstown State and Albany. Pitt hasn’t kicked off a season with a division opponent since 2013, its first year in the ACC, when the Panthers took on Jameis Winston and the eventual national champion Florida State Seminoles. Winston torched the Panthers by completing 25 of 27 passes as Florida State notched its first win in a dominant undefeated season.

This Virginia team is no 2013 Florida State, but the Cavaliers certainly have high expectations entering 2019. They’re the overwhelming favorites to win the Coastal division, having received 82 first-place votes from 173 ACC media members who took a preseason poll. Betting outlets are a little less friendly, setting Virginia’s over/under for wins at 7.5 games, behind both Virginia Tech (8) and Miami (8.5).

Still, it’s obvious that many people are bullish on Virginia’s chance at success this year. But why? After all, this is a team that has been a perennial bottom-dweller in the ACC Coastal since conference realignment in 2013, finishing fifth or worse every season except last. They don’t typically strike fear into the hearts of opposing teams.

The hype around Virginia starts with the fact that head coach Bronco Mendenhall’s team began to turn things around in 2018, notching an 8-5 overall record despite a pedestrian 4-4 conference record. The Cavaliers really flashed their full potential in the season finale, dominating South Carolina 28-0 in the Belk Bowl. Virginia succeeded with its mix of elite defense, which ranked 21st in the country in yards allowed per game, and offense led by quarterback Bryce Perkins, who passed for 2,680 yards and ran for 1,189 more.

Now a senior, the dual-threat Perkins will look to build off 2018 with another monster year in 2019. The Cavaliers also bring back several members of last year’s stingy defense, including one of college football’s best defensive backs in senior Bryce Hall. The definition of a lockdown cornerback, Hall led the nation with 22 pass breakups, earning him first team All-ACC honors.

Despite all this, I don’t see Virginia being the world-beaters that many outlets have them pegged to be this season. It seems like part of the reason they’re expected to do so well has to do with factors outside their control, namely the fact that their ascension fits comfortably within the narrative of the Coastal being one of the most balanced divisions in college football. The Coastal has crowned a different champion each year since 2013’s realignment, and Virginia is the only program yet to take the crown. This made it a trendy choice of champion for those who believe the pattern will continue.

Here’s a pattern I think will continue — Pitt beating Virginia. The Panthers have had Virginia’s number since joining the conference in 2013, dominating the matchup with a 5-1 overall record. That includes last year, when Pitt stifled the red-hot Cavaliers for a season-low 13 points on their own turf. The key in that game was limiting Perkins on the ground, as Pitt’s defense held him to a season-low -7 rushing yards.

Pitt will once again need to limit Perkin’s legs if it wants to win, although that stands to be a taller task now that standout junior defensive end Rashad Weaver will miss the entire 2019 season after tearing an ACL during training camp. Returning members of the defensive interior like senior Amir Watts and redshirt junior Patrick Jones II must contain Perkins in the pocket or else it could be a long day for the Panthers.

It’s always especially difficult to predict season openers, as each team is basically putting forth a brand new roster on which there’s no existing scouting report. We still don’t know exactly what new Pitt offensive coordinator Mark Whipple’s scheme will look like or who will get the most touches out of Pitt’s backfield in the wake of Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall’s departure.

Some of this turnover, however, should actually work in the Panthers’ favor. Virginia may as well throw out the tape of last year’s game — there’s nothing it can learn from watching ex-coordinator Shawn Watson’s run-dominant playcalling. Mendenhall is about as much in the dark as any fan off the street about what to expect from Pitt’s new offense under Whipple. Meanwhile, the Panthers can glean more from last year’s footage, knowing that Perkins and the offense will be operating in the same general system under incumbent offensive coordinator Robert Anae.

PREDICTION: Fans can expect a low-scoring, sloppy game early on. Both teams’ strengths lie on the defensive side of the ball, and it may take a little while before the offenses can find a groove. Both teams also possess elite secondaries, making yards through the air hard to come by. A breakaway run, pick six or return touchdown could be the ultimate difference in what should be a gritty, down-to-the-wire affair. Sticking to my prediction from June, I’ll take the Panthers to come out on top.

Pitt: 24, Virginia: 21

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