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Virginia Defense Leads the Way

By Dave Holcomb
SouthernPigskin.com
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While Pitt fought back in the first half, proving its championship mettle, Virginia’s defense flexed its muscle in the third and fourth quarters, leading the Cavaliers to a, 30-14 win.

With all the chaos in the ACC Coastal Division the last few years, it’s really difficult to believe a Week 1 matchup will decide the division race.

Yet still, it felt like there was a lot at stake at Heinz Field on Saturday night, as the defending Coastal champion Pitt Panthers hosted one of the popular preseason favorites in the division this year.

While Pitt fought back in the first half, proving its championship mettle, Virginia’s defense flexed its muscle in the third and fourth quarters, leading the Cavaliers to a, 30-14 win -- a victory that could prove to be a very key division win.

After starting 1 of 7 passing, Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett settled in, completing 11 of his next 13 passes. The Panthers scored touchdowns on two of their final three drives of the first half, including a 14-play, 80-yard drive to milk most of the remaining clock in the second quarter.

Behind those two scores, Pitt led at halftime, 14-13. Going into the locker room, the Panthers new-look offense seemed ready to assert itself and perhaps turn Pitt into the Coastal favorites.

Instead, all that rhythm in the second quarter evaporated after halftime. Virginia kicked a field goal to retake the lead on its first possession of the third quarter and then never relinquished that lead the rest of the night.

In the second half, the Cavaliers held Pickett to 9 of 21 passing for only 63 yards and two interceptions. He finished the night 21-for-41 with 185 passing yards, a touchdown and the two picks. The Virginia defense also sacked Pickett three times in the second half.

Maybe things would have been difficult if Pickett completes his second pass attempt of the second half. The throw was a little behind intended receiver Taysir Mack, but the ball still hit the wide-open receiver in the hands, and he simply dropped it. It would have been a big gain down the sidelines for a first down.

On the very next play on third-and-10, Virginia outside linebacker Matt Gahm undercut an out route, intercepting Pickett’s pass deep inside Pitt territory. Virginia found the end zone just five plays later.

Pitt entered Virginia territory twice in the second half, but the Cavaliers still held the Panthers to zero points. Those possessions ended in a long missed field goal and an interception.

At the beginning of the fourth quarter, Pickett completed a 19-yard pass to Tre Tipton, and then Virginia committed a personal foul, pushing Pitt to the Virginia 36-yard line. But then the Cavaliers defense stiffened, recording two sacks and a pick on the next three plays.

Virginia safety Joey Blount had an incredible series of plays during that drive. He recorded the second sack and then intercepted Pickett’s pass to preserve the Cavaliers nine-point lead. Virginia added a meaningless touchdown in the final 30 seconds to win by 15.

Cavaliers quarterback Bryce Perkins didn’t have a great night, but he did enough behind his team’s stout defense to win the key road Coastal division contest, particularly on the ground during the second half. Perkins went 20-for-34 through the air with 181 yards and two touchdowns. He wasn’t efficient on the ground, rushing for 44 yards on 18 carries, but Perkins extended a few drives with third-down scrambles and avoided bigger losses with other running plays.

To Pickett’s credit, he also helped his team’s cause with a couple scrambles in the second half, but other than Tipton’s 19-yard reception, Pickett’s few lone scrambles was Pitt’s best offense in the final two quarters.

The Coastal division was hardly decided Saturday night in Pittsburgh, but Virginia now holds the tiebreaker over the 2018 division winner. Even in Week 1, the importance of that can’t really be overstated.