After surviving a 58-55 defense-optional result last week at Duke, Pittsburgh quarterback Tom Savage can confidently state his side can more than hang in a shootout.
“If the game’s ever out of reach,” Savage said, “we have so many talented receivers and running backs and offensive linemen out there, I think we’re always ready to go.”
Savage’s Saturday counterpart somewhat echoed those words this week, saying “if we have to score 100 points, we can do it. I think we can do it. I know we can.”
But, contrary to Savage, Virginia signal caller David Watford doesn’t have the concrete evidence to provide a stiff wall of backing to his statement.
At least not yet, anyway.
UVa is 2-1 and will get 2-1 Pitt at 12:30 p.m., Saturday. To this point, the Cavaliers have won the tight defensive battle — 19-16 over BYU on Aug. 31 — and the runaway blowout — 49-0 over VMI on Sept. 21. No. 2 Oregon invited Virginia to a track meet on Sept. 7, but the Wahoos couldn’t get out of the starting blocks, falling 59-10.
To challenge in a shootout, the Cavs must first enter it. When the Ducks put up 21 points in the first 12 minutes, UVa didn’t respond until Khalek Shepherd ran for a 45-yard touchdown with 45 seconds to go in the opening quarter.
That would be the extent of the Cavs’ significant replies that afternoon.
Like Oregon, Pittsburgh doesn’t mind getting a bulk of its scoring out of the way early. In the wild Duke win, the Panthers had a 20-7 lead at the end of the first quarter. In a 49-27 rout of New Mexico on Sept. 14, Pitt was up, 21-3, after 15 minutes.
UVa, meanwhile, has scored all of seven first quarter points this season.
“It’s just a collaboration of different things,” Watford said. “We’ve just struggled starting fast. We haven’t started as fast as we’ve wanted to. Some of that is my fault. We just have to keep the drives alive. That’s one thing that I noticed in a couple of the games.
“We’ll start off with a three-and-out instead of just being able to drive the ball down the field steadily and put points on the board — either field goals or touchdowns.”
In 2013, Virginia’s opening drives have gone 16 yards on 12 plays. They’ve led to one first down, but three punts.
Last week, against a VMI defense that came in yielding over 510 yards a game, UVa got just 92 in the first quarter. The Cavaliers had four possessions — one ending in punt, one on downs and two on interceptions.
Virginia’s running game eventually came around to the tune of 357 yards, but only 38 of that came in the game’s opening 15 minutes.
“Our kids have to develop some confidence early,” said Wahoo running backs coach Larry Lewis. “But they also have to come out with that kind of confidence — the energy and effort that I always talk about. And they have to help each other out. They can’t rely on us as coaches. We’re still a pretty young team and they’re still listening to us a lot.
“It’s got to come from within. That’s what we’re trying to build right now, so they’re not waiting for the coach to get on them, but it’s coming internally. I think that’s where we can really improve. Not waiting for somebody to make a play, but go out and create one with a lot of energy, a lot of effort.”
Pitt’s gotten into a habit of being ready from the tunnel. Even in a 41-13 loss to No. 8 Florida State on Sept. 2, the Panthers used their opening drive to march 80 yards in 4:10 to score and take a 7-0 lead.
“I think it’s just preparation,” Savage said. “That’s what it comes down to. We go out there and execute what we’re taught and it hopefully leads to success for all four quarters.”
Which, in the cases of Duke and New Mexico, also led to high-scoring wins.
Of course, nobody on the UVa side is expecting the solid Cavalier defense to allow such a barrage from the Panthers.
But if it should happen, the simple objective remains.
“Whatever the defense is able to keep them to, we really just need to score one more than them,” said Virginia tight end Jake McGee.
UVa went 1-1 in explosive back-and-forth affairs last season. In a 44-38 loss to Louisiana Tech on Sept. 29, the Cavs led 14-10 after the first quarter. In a 41-40 win over Miami on Nov. 10, the Cavs led 21-14 after the first quarter.
“We just have to come out with the mindset that we’re going to score, we’re going to win, we’re going to do whatever it takes,” Watford said. “It’s important to get off to a fast start, especially on the road playing a good team like Pitt.”