Editor's note: This story contains a correction pertaining to Pittsburgh's yards per carry average in Saturday's game.
PITTSBURGH — Virginia linebacker Rob Snyder didn’t even try to disguise his intentions.
Inching closer to the line of scrimmage during Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett’s pre-snap cadence, Snyder crouched low in his stance. On the snap, he exploded like a sprinter coming out of the starting blocks and leveled Pickett just as he released the ball.
As Snyder popped up and went off in search of someone to celebrate with, Pickett laid flat on his back with both hands clasped to his facemask as if he was afraid it was going to fall off as a teammate leaned over and offered a hand to help his quarterback off the turf.
A couple drives later, safety Joey Blount delivered a blow, which again left Pickett on the turf in Heinz Field taking a mental inventory of his internal organs. This time, it took two teammates to help him to his feet.
Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall’s message before Saturday’s season opener at Pittsburgh was the same as before last season’s home loss to the Panthers. If they had any chance of snapping their four-game losing streak to Pitt, the Cavaliers had to be the more physical team.
The difference this year is the Cavaliers delivered on their coach’s words. A year after surrendering more than 250 yards on the ground, Virginia limited Pitt to 78, sacked Pickett four times and boarded a plane for the 35-minute flight back to Charlottesville with a 30-14 victory.
Four UVa players recorded at least a half a sack and Blount led the way with two. Pickett had a player in his face every time he dropped back and by the fourth quarter, all the hits began to take their toll.
“We sent a lot of pressure at the quarterback,” Blount said. “We saw in preparation that he really got out of the pocket a lot, he got frazzled with pressure in his face and he tried to force the ball down the field a lot.”
Pressure up the middle forced Pickett out of the pocket in the fourth quarter and set up Blount’s interception. Playing underneath coverage, Blount watched him lock onto a receiver and waited patiently until the ball was within reach.
In Virginia’s post-win ritual, it was Blount who broke the first rock of the season.
“I’m speechless, honestly,” Blount said. “It was kind of emotional because there were a lot of players who could have been deemed worthy of breaking the rock. Brian Delaney hit key field goals, there was a span where [Charles] Snowden was making tackle after tackle, [Matt] Gahm’s interception. I wanted to share it with the defense.”
It was a special night for Virginia linebacker Zane Zandier, who, despite playing with a cast on his right hand, led the way with nine tackles in his homecoming game. Zandier grew up near Pittsburgh and played his high school ball just 15 minutes from Heinz Field at Thomas Jefferson High School.
Especially with inside linebacker Jordan Mack sidelined in the second half with a possible concussion, Zandier and Snyder were locked onto Pickett like heat-seeking missiles. Pickett threw two interceptions Saturday night, and both came on plays immediately following a sack.
“Coach [Nick] Howell did a great job, and I appreciate every time he sends us,” said Zandier, who played with a cast on his right hand after breaking it in practice on Monday. “Every time we get sent like that, the mindset is to make a play and I think we did a pretty good job of that.”
On the field, Zandier took no mercy on Pickett, but he did leave Heinz Field impressed with how the Panthers’ quarterback picked himself up time and time again.
“I have to tip my cap to him because he took a lot of hits tonight and I think he was really tough in there,” Zandier said.
After halftime, Pitt managed just 86 yards of total offense and 23 on the ground. The Cavaliers’ goal in every game this season is to hold their opponent to fewer than 3.5 yards per carry, and they accomplished that Saturday, holding the Panthers to 2.6. They also checked another pretty important box in setting the tone for the rest of the season.
“The tone we set as a defense is that we stop the run and we have the best secondary in the nation,” Blount said. “We went out tonight and beat a team we haven’t beaten before and we showed them in their home that we’re a team to reckon with in the ACC in both divisions.”
Virginia is back in action on Friday night when former UVa head coach Mike London leads William & Mary into Scott Stadium.
Ron Counts covers University of Virginia athletics for The Daily Progress. Contact him at email@example.com, (434) 978-7245, or on Twitter @Ron_CDPsports.