Year four for Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall begins on Aug. 31 in Heinz Field against a team the Cavaliers haven’t had much success against in recent years.
Our 2019 opponent preview series begins with Pittsburgh, which won the ACC’s Coastal Division last season with a 6-2 conference record before losing, 42-10, to Clemson in the ACC title game and 14-13 in the Sun Bowl against Stanford.
Last fall, Virginia was on a three-game win streak and just a week removed from securing bowl eligibility when Pitt invaded Scott Stadium and racked up 254 rushing yards on the way to a 23-13 victory. The Cavaliers managed just 44 yards on the ground, and quarterback Bryce Perkins was sacked five times.
Explosive wide receiver turned running back V’Lique Carter returns in the backfield for Pitt, but this year’s offense may take on a different look. Darrin Hall and Qadree Ollison — both of whom eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards a year ago — are gone, and the Panthers have to replace four starters on the offensive line.
Pitt also is breaking in new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, who spent the past five seasons as the head coach at Massachusetts. In three of those years, the Minutemen were ranked among the nation’s top 20 passing teams. Last season, they averaged 298.1 passing yards a game, which ranked No. 14 in the country and produced All-American wide out Andy Isabella, who finished the season with 1,698 receiving yards and was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals.
Early test on the edge
There’s no easing into the season for Virginia’s offensive line. On opening weekend, whoever ends up starting at tackle will face one of the ACC’s top pass rushers in defensive end Rashad Weaver, who led the Panthers last season with 14 tackles for a loss and 6.5 sacks. He also defended four passes and graded out as one of the conference’s top run defenders.
Last fall, Ryan Nelson started every game at left tackle for the Cavaliers and will likely draw the assignment again. The question is who will hold down the right side? Penn State graduate transfer Alex Gellerstedt was the favorite before suffering a season-ending injury during summer conditioning. Sophomores Bobby Haskins and Ryan Swoboda will now battle it out unless freshman Ja’Quay Hubbard shows the coaches enough to earn the start.
There’s also the possibility that the coaches are pleased enough with some combination of Tyler Fannin, Victor Oluwatimi, Chris Glaser and possibly freshman Kariem Al Soufi inside to move Dillon Reinkensmeyer to tackle.
Baptism in the backfield
Virginia’s retooled backfield will also face an early test against Pittsburgh’s physical front seven, led by veteran linebackers Saleem Brightwell and Elias Reynolds. Last season, Pitt ranked No. 9 in the ACC in rushing defense (178.3 yards a game) and No. 5 in total defense (387.6 ypg).
If what Mendenhall said at ACC Media Day holds true, it’ll be PK Kier and true freshman Mike Hollins pounding the middle of the defense. Given Pitt’s physical reputation, don’t be surprised to see hefty backs Wayne Taulapapa and Jamari Peacock inserted into the game plan.
Virginia has earned some praise in recent years as DBU, and the Cavaliers are going to have to work to defend the moniker in week one. Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett is back after starting every game last season as a sophomore, and he’ll be throwing to two of the conference’s more explosive receivers in Maurice Ffrench and Taysir Mack, who averaged 22.3 yards per catch last fall. Ffrench led the team with six receiving touchdowns, and he may be UVa senior Joe Reed’s top competition for best kick returner in the ACC. The Panthers aren’t likely to test Virginia cornerback Bryce Hall too often, so whoever wins the job opposite him better be ready for plenty of action right out of the gate.
Virginia is 3-8 all-time against Pitt, and the Cavaliers have lost four in a row. They last beat the Panthers in 2014.
A win in the season opener against last season’s Coastal Division champion would give Virginia an early leg up in the race to the ACC championship game. Limiting Pitt’s power running game and establishing their own would go a long way toward proving that the Cavaliers can physically compete with the best in the conference. Pitt has bullied Virginia on the field in recent years, but especially with so many starters back on defense and added depth on the defensive line, maybe this is the Cavaliers’ year to push the Panthers around.