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The Panthers' explosive offense and porous defense could make for a high-scoring game.
VMI wide receiver Dane Forlines is tackled by Virginia safety Anthony Harris (8) in Charlottesville on Saturday.
Friday, September 27, 2013
Virginia’s last trip to Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field marked Mike London’s debut as Virginia defensive coordinator.
He does not have fond memories of the place.
It was the opening game of the 2006 season and the Panthers hammered Virginia 38-13, although London’s defense wasn’t the primary culprit.
On a night when both teams had 13 first downs, Pitt scored two touchdowns on interception returns, the first and more pivotal one by Darrelle Revis, a first-round draft pick later that season and a future four-time Pro Bowler.
Touchdowns off interception returns might head London’s wish list for his own defense.
“Or you want to set up a score by the field position you give the offense,” said London, who in his fourth year as the Cavaliers’ head coach takes the Cavaliers to Heinz Field today for a 12:30 p.m. kickoff.
It will the first meeting between the teams since Pittsburgh (2-1, 1-1) was admitted to the ACC and placed in the Coastal Division, where it will meet Virginia (2-1, 0-0) on an annual basis.
The Cavaliers haven’t scored on a pass interception since 2011 but a late interception by Anthony Harris led to the go-ahead touchdown in a 19-16 victory over Brigham Young in this year’s opener.
In its first road game of the season, Virginia will be charged with containing a Pittsburgh offense that gained 598 yards last week in a 58-55 victory at Duke.
Panthers’ quarterback Tom Savage, a 6-foot-5, 230-pounder who began his college career at Rutgers and later transferred to Arizona, passed for 424 yards and six touchdowns against the Blue Devils.
“He’s a fifth-year guy but hasn’t played a lot of football,” Pitt coach Paul Chryst said. “You never quite know how a guy’s going to perform. That’s part of the beauty of it.
“He’s certainly a talented player. I mean, he’s got a major-college arm, certainly, and he’s a competitor.”
Chryst is in his second year as Panthers head coach after taking over from Todd Graham, who was at Pitt for one season before leaving for Arizona State in December 2011.
Before that, Chryst was the offensive coordinator for six seasons at Wisconsin, where he played quarterback in the 1980s.
Chryst coached high-powered offenses at Wisconsin, including the 2011 Badgers’ Rose Bowl team quarterbacked by Russell Wilson, a transfer from North Carolina State. His first Pitt team had a 3,000-yard passer in senior quarterback Tino Sunseri.
That Panthers team, which finished 6-7 after a 38-17 loss to Mississippi in the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala., also ranked 17th among 120 FBS teams in total defense and 23rd in scoring defense.
Defensive coordinator for that Pitt team was Dave Huxtable, who resigned after the season to join the staff of new N.C. State head coach Dave Doeren. Huxtable had coached at Wisconsin, but not at the same time as Chryst or Doeren, another former Badgers’ aide.
More than two months passed between Huxtable’s resignation and the announcement Feb. 18 that he would be succeeded by Matt House, who coached the Panthers’ secondary in 2012.
Although statistics can be inflated at this time of year, Pitt’s defensive numbers are rather alarming. The Panthers rank 102nd in total defense (yards allowed per game) and 118th in scoring defense.
In the Panthers’ opener, Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston completed 25 of 27 passes for 356 yards and four touchdowns. Last week, Brandon Connette, Duke’s No. 2 quarterback to start the season, threw four touchdown passes and ran for two touchdowns.
“We’ve got to get better defensively,” Chryst said this week. “There are things we’ve got to clear up. Obviously, you don’t feel good giving up that many points, but we don’t give win that game without some defensive plays.”
The Panthers intercepted passes on Duke’s first two offensive series and got an interception return for a touchdown by linebacker Anthony Gonzalez in the fourth quarter.
“I think our job is to make sure that, whatever the game is, we’re prepared to win it,” Chryst said. “If it’s a shootout, we’ve got to be prepared to win it. But, these scores aren’t as shocking as maybe they would have been 10 years ago.”
Duke coach David Cutcliffe, reflecting on the Blue Devils’ game with Pitt, noted that the Panthers gained 423 yards on 17 offensive plays and 175 yards on their other 62 snaps.
“Obviously, we’re the type of defense that wants to apply pressure and not allow long throws or long runs,” London said. “It’s important for us to limit their explosive plays.”
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