On Saturday night at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, the Virginia football team will take the field in an official capacity for the first time since a dominant win over South Carolina in the Belk Bowl.
Virginia is coming off its first eight-win season since 2011 and eyeing its third consecutive bowl game for the first time since going to four straight between 2002-05. But the Cavaliers are 0-5 all-time on the road against Pittsburgh, and the Panthers have won the last four meetings. Virginia also is opening the season against an ACC opponent for the first time since 2003, when it opened the year with a win over Duke.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s John McGonigal and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Jerry DiPaola have spent the offseason chronicling the Panthers’ preparation, and they were kind enough to field a few questions ahead of Saturday’s opener.
1. With quarterback Kenny Pickett back with a year under his belt and new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple in town, is Pitt going to move away from its traditional physically dominating run-first approach to a more pass-heavy offense?
McGonigal: Pitt is not going to give up its identity running the football; Pat Narduzzi has made that clear all throughout camp. But he fired former offensive coordinator Shawn Watson because the passing offense was non-existent. The Panthers ranked 123rd in passing attempts per game in 2018, with five of the seven teams below them featuring the triple-option. Narduzzi hopes Whipple's multiple offense brings balance and allows Pickett to actually utilize Maurice Ffrench, Taysir Mack and the tight ends, a position group that caught only 11 passes last year.
DiPaolo: Not a chance. Narduzzi believes in the run game completely and will try to establish it early in the game. That said, he has said the passing game needs to get better. But if the young line can't protect Pickett, Pitt may have to continue pounding. Trouble is, the young running backs are unproven, too.
2. The Panthers basically have to rebuild their backfield this fall. Is the starting job A.J. Davis' to lose and what role can V'Lique Carter carve out for himself?
McGonigal: It is a tall task for Pitt running backs coach Andre Powell, replacing Darrin Hall and Qadree Ollison, a pair of 1,000-yard rushers. But he'll likely do it by committee. A.J. Davis and Todd Sibley Jr. are listed as co-starters, former four-star recruit Mychale Salahuddin is still working back from a knee injury, and true freshman Vincent Davis is impressing despite his 170-pound stature. All should see carries. As for V'Lique Carter, his role is up in the air at this point.
DiPaolo: Davis is listed first on the depth chart, but with an OR next to his name. Todd Sibley Jr. will be the 1A. Carter has the speed that the others don't have, but he won't be able to sneak up on opponents like he did last year against Duke. Narduzzi has given high praise to freshman Vincent Davis. But how much will he play in big games? That's a question that can't be answered until Saturday night.
3. How big of a loss was Rashad Weaver and where does Pitt now turn to produce a pass rush?
McGonigal: Weaver talked on fall media day about ACC Defensive Player of the Year aspirations, so it's a significant loss. He might have been the Panthers' best player, period. In his absence, a lot is expected of Patrick Jones II, a first-year starter after posting 7.5 tackles for a loss as Pitt's primary reserve pass-rusher last year. Redshirt sophomore Deslin Alexandre will start opposite Jones with redshirt freshmen Habakkuk Baldonado and John Morgan pushing for time behind them.
DiPaolo: Huge loss. He was probably the best player on the defense. Redshirt sophomore Deslin Alexandre will take Weaver's place in the starting lineup, but he's unproven as a pass rusher. Watch out for Patrick Jones II, the defensive end on the other side. He plays with a nasty streak.
4. Which of the Panthers' explosive receivers, Maurice Ffrench or Taysir Mack, is poised to have the bigger season?
McGonigal: Mack ranked second in the country in yards per catch (22.28), but give me Ffrench. The captain is a preseason All-ACC pick as a returner, but he ought to be a weapon on offense in 2019, too. Ffrench is working at the "Z" position, the same Andy Isabella operated out of under Whipple at UMass. Isabella, a 2019 second-round pick by the Arizona Cardinals, led the nation with 1,698 receiving yards in 2018. It'd be a bit much to expect that out of Ffrench, but he should see plenty of targets.
DiPaolo: Ffrench can stretch the defense with his speed and might be slightly more productive than Mack, who missed most of last year's camp before the NCAA declared him eligible as a transfer from Indiana. With a full camp this year, bigger things are expected from Mack. But I'd put my money on Ffrench.
5. What effect (if any) has opening the season against an ACC opponent, let alone the favorite to win the Coastal Division, had on the team? Is there an added sense of pressure in the face of potentially opening the season with a conference loss?
McGonigal: I don't think there's been a real effect on the Panthers. But Narduzzi and company are definitely aware of the game's importance. "Any time you open up with someone that's a preseason favorite, I think it adds a little extra for the game," the coach said at his weekly press conference. Should be a good one.
DiPaolo: Players and coaches would say it's more of a sense of urgency than a sense of pressure. It's a big game because it gives everyone inside and outside the program an early sense of what Pitt can or cannot be this season. A loss wouldn't be devastating, but with Penn State and UCF on the September schedule, a loss to Virginia might lead to three losses by mid-season. And that wouldn't be good.