Just when it seemed that Virginia’s 2018 football team was on a roll, a home loss to Pittsburgh was nearly the Cavaliers’ downfall.
The last thing UVa wants this weekend is that sour taste returning.
Virginia, the preseason choice to win the ACC’s Coastal Division, visits the reigning Coastal champions Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field.
The Panthers have won eight of the teams’ 11 meetings, including a 23-13 loss last year in Charlottesville, where the Cavaliers were 8 ½-point favorites.
“Last year, they were probably hungrier than us,” UVa quarterback Bryce Perkins said. “We basically got out-physicaled last year.”
The Cavaliers entered the Pitt game with consecutive victories over Miami, Duke and North Carolina but rushed for a season-low 44 yards and had a season-high 10 penalties against the Panthers.
“Looking back at that, we’ve got to come in with a different mindset,” Perkins said. “We’ve got to start fast because this game’s going to set the pace for the rest of the season.”
Perkins was sacked five times by Pitt last year, and the Panthers will be coming after him again.
“Last time we played them, we were in midseason form as far as hitting the quarterback,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “Obviously, Bryce can throw it and he can run it and scramble.
“It doesn’t matter who we’re facing in the pocket. We’ve got to hit the guy regardless of how athletic he is. That’s the biggest thing, tackling the quarterback.”
Kenny Pickett, returning as the Panthers’ No. 1 quarterback, was 7 for 14 for 61 yards against UVa last year. Pitt did most of its damage to Virginia on the ground, as Darrin Hall carried 19 times for 229 yards and three touchdowns, including runs of 41 and 75 yards.
Hall and fellow 1,000-yard rusher Qadree Ollison have completed their eligibility.
“Pitt’s offensive and defensive fronts have controlled the game in each of the past three matchups,” said Mendenhall, who is 0-3 against the Panthers, “so, there is a physical component — but then certainly an intensity — that has to be played with from beginning to end.
“Can’t be bits and pieces and can’t be streaks here or there or series here or there. … As much as we would like to say that we know where we stand, you really don’t until you play.”
One uncertainty concerns the changes that may have been put into effect when Narduzzi hired Mark Whipple as his offensive coordinator. Whipple, a former quarterbacks coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers and a mentor for Ben Roethlisberger, had been the head coach at UMass for the past five seasons.
Pitt’s previous coordinator Shawn Watson was not retained after the 2018 season in a staff shake-up that coincided with the departure of receivers coach Kevin Sherman, a former Virginia Tech assistant.
The current Pitt staff includes former UVa assistants Dave Borbely, Andre Powell and Chris Beatty, a newcomer this year following three seasons at Maryland.
All coached at Virginia prior to Mendenhall’s arrival in 2016 and a majority of the players on UVa’s roster were recruited by the current staff.
“I think I said at the end of the bowl game last year that this is just the beginning,” said Mendenhall, whose 2018 team finished 8-5. “This feels like the baseline for me for launching the program.
“That doesn’t mean the past three years don’t count. I’m accountable for every result that’s happened — the positives and the negatives and the trajectory — [but] it really feels like a launch point now with players that we’ve selected.”