PITTSBURGH — One of the maladies that has plagued Virginia’s football team in recent years has been the inability to hold onto a lead.
It’s called “closing,” and it’s not unique to football; witness UVa’s stretch in winning the NCAA men’s basketball championship this past spring.
Last season, UVa went 8-5, its best record in Bronco Mendenhall’s three seasons as head coach, but it’s easy to see that the 2018 Cavaliers could have done better.
After a 6-2 start that earned them a spot in the AP Top 25, the Cavaliers lost three of four to end the regular season.
Virginia’s demise, if you could call it that, started last year against the same Pittsburgh team that UVa faced Saturday night.
The Cavaliers led the Panthers late in the third quarter before the Panthers pulled away for a 23-13 victory.
It was a similar story two weeks later, when Virginia took a 21-16 lead into the fourth quarter before falling in overtime at Georgia Tech, 30-27.
Six days after that in Blacksburg, Virginia Tech scored an unlikely game-tying touchdown in the final minute of regulation, then defeated the Cavaliers 34-31 in overtime.
With a 28-0 rout of South Carolina in the Belk Bowl, Virginia clinched its first winning record in seven seasons, but the Cavaliers didn’t exorcise all of their demons.
That’s where Saturday night’s game at Heinz Field came in. UVa led for all but a total of 3 minutes, 44 seconds, but that’s not to say it wasn’t close.
In fact, it seemed that Pittsburgh had the momentum after a 16-play, 80-yard drive that gave the Panthers their first lead of the night at 14-13 to end the first half.
Clearly, the Cavaliers had plenty to stew about at halftime, and not just the score.
One of their best players, senior linebacker Jordan Mack, was injured in the first half and did not return from what Mendenhall indicated was a concussion.
The Cavaliers responded by accomplishing something that they didn’t do all of last season: holding an opponent scoreless in the second half.
Clearly, this wasn’t the same Panthers’ team that won the ACC’s Coastal Division last year.
Gone are two running backs who each rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season, including Darrin Hall, who racked up 229 yards against the Cavaliers.
As a team, Pitt rushed for 78 yards on 30 carries Saturday night.
When head coach Pat Narduzzi parted company with offensive coordinator Shawn Watson after the 2018 season, there was a sense that the Panthers, ranked 11th in the ACC in total offense, would become more explosive with the arrival of new offensive quarterback Mark Whipple, previously the head coach at UMass.
Quarterback Kenny Pickett, now a junior, was good enough to beat the Cavaliers last year, but he lacked the explosiveness of UVa quarterback Bryce Perkins on Saturday. Pickett was sacked four times, and the Panthers had one play from scrimmage of more than 19 yards
Perkins had the longest run by either team, a 27-yarder that set up UVa’s go-ahead field goal in the third quarter, as well as a 33-yard completion to graduate transfer Terrell Chatman, Perkins’ roommate when they were both at Arizona State.
There had to be questions about the UVa running game when 1,000-yard rusher Jordan Ellis completed his eligibility last season.
From a list of candidates to pick up the load, sophomore Wayne Taulapapa turned heads with 10 carries for a game-high 66 yards.
The Cavaliers next play Friday against intrastate FCS foe William and Mary, coached by former UVa head coach Mike London. Virginia should have little trouble with the Tribe, but then comes a Sept. 21 meeting with Florida State at Scott Stadium.
As preparation goes, a trip to Heinz Field couldn’t have been more beneficial.