The Virginia football team found itself in unfamiliar territory Saturday when Pittsburgh ended the first half with two long scoring drives and took its first lead of the game with 38 seconds left in the second quarter.
Last season, Virginia trailed at halftime just three times: at Indiana, at N.C. State and at home against Virginia Tech. In the regular season finale, the Cavaliers outscored the Hokies, 31-17, in the second half and didn’t flinch until a botched handoff in overtime cost them the game.
The difference on Saturday — against a team they hadn’t beaten in four years — was that the Cavaliers finished.
“More than anything else I could say is just maturity and resolve,” Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall said Monday when asked what he learned while watching his team shut Pitt out in the second half. “Our team is becoming seasoned. That situation wasn’t too big for them. It wasn’t too fast for them. Trailing at halftime wasn’t devastating to them.”
Virginia’s first four drives on Saturday resulted in 13 points. Pittsburgh went three-and-out on its first two drives, and it’s third also ended in a punt.
The first of the Panthers’ long scoring drives consisted of seven plays and covered 85 yards, and the other spanned 14 plays and took 5:34 off the clock. The latter included a heavy dose of young running back Todd Shipley Jr. and quarterback Kenny Pickett’s legs, but unlike in previous seasons, it didn’t shake the Cavaliers’ foundation.
“There wasn’t anything that needed to be said in the locker room and there wasn’t any rah-rah speech,” junior cornerback Nick Grant said. “We knew most of their success came from our mistakes. Going into the second half, we just knew it needed to be a high-energy, high-communication type deal.”
Mendenhall was impressed Saturday with his team’s workmanlike approach to what needed to be fixed after halftime.
“That’s a whole different place than we’ve been. It’s been emerging and building each of the last couple years,” he said. “But there was just kind of a matter of fact ‘This is what ACC football looks like. This is how hard it is. These are the plays we need to make. It’s going to be a challenge. Let’s get to work.’”
Adjustments weren’t just made on the defensive end. Virginia’s offensive leaders knew how critical it was to respond with points early in the third quarter.
“It was very important because it’s basically us battling adversity,” senior wide receiver Hasise Dubois said after the game. “There have been plenty of times in previous years when we’re up, then we go down a little bit and we all just die. We were not trying to let that happen, so we battled back and overcame adversity.”
For quarterback Bryce Perkins, the comeback began with converting red zone opportunities into seven points. Virginia’s first drive of the game also was its longest (11 plays, 6:13 off the clock), and the Cavaliers made it all the way to Pitt’s 12-yard line before Perkins took a sack, which forced them to settle for a field goal.
Early in the second quarter, the Cavaliers (1-0, 1-0 ACC) had a chance to make it a two-score game until three straight incompletions from Pitt’s 19 led to another Brian Delaney field goal and a 13-7 lead. The Panthers led, 14-13, at halftime and Perkins knew field goals weren’t going to cut it down the stretch.
“We definitely emphasized a physical mindset and the O-line came out with a different mindset,” Perkins said. “We, as a team, rallied behind each other and really picked each other up.”
Crossing the goal line early in the second half was so important, Dubois made a deal with the defense.
“I told the defense once they get a stop, I’ll make it my responsibility to score a touchdown,” Dubois said. “Bryce gave me that chance and I wasn’t letting anyone stop me from getting into the end zone.”
Virginia’s first drive of the second half ended once again with a Delaney field goal deep in Pitt territory. But facing third-and-five from the Panthers’ 13 on the following possession, Perkins hit Dubois on a short crossing route and he drug a tackler a couple yards before stretching the ball across the goal line for a touchdown and nine-point lead.
More so than another year in the system, hours spent in the weight room or the addition of highly touted recruits, the players who have been with Mendenhall since he began rebuilding the program in 2016 say that resolve is what is going to propel Virginia to a special season.
“We knew what the second half had in store for us, and we kept believing and didn’t give up,” senior wide receiver Joe Reed said. “We went in with positive energy that we could come back in the second half and win, and to me that was the biggest difference.”
The Cavaliers look to open the season 2-0 for the first time in the Mendenhall era on Friday night when they host in-state foe William & Mary (1-0).