The Pitt Panthers and Virginia Cavaliers have programs that seem to be at different ends of the rebuilding process, but they still share similarities in their team composition that should make for an exciting game Saturday afternoon.
The teams will meet for the third time in five years in Charlottesville, with Pitt taking the last meeting in 2006 at Heinz Field by a score of 38-13.
The similarities between the two teams start at the helm—Dave Wannstedt and Al Groh are both former NFL head coaches, and are head coaches at their respective alma maters.
Wannstedt is in his third year at the University of Pittsburgh and has missed a bowl each of his first two seasons. Groh is in his seventh year with the Cavaliers, and last season was the first time he missed a bowl in four years.
It also seems like the things that plagued Virginia last season (turnovers, inexperienced QB, a young defense) are affecting Pitt so far this season.
“We can very much relate to that,” Groh said in his weekly press conference. “Their defense is playing admirably...About 75 percent of their most recent points have occurred as a result of turnovers and some of them run directly into the end zone.”
Groh is all too familiar with the subject; last season his team had five interceptions run back for touchdowns.
“The most important thing at this point is protecting the football. We’ve given up 44 points the last two games and 34 of those (points) came off of turnovers.”
It will be Pat Bostick's job to protect the ball Saturday as he makes his first collegiate start at quarterback. Bostick has shown promise in the short time he has been on the field so far this season, but has still thrown more interceptions (four) than touchdowns (one).
Joining Bostick in the backfield will be freshman standout LeSean McCoy, who will make his first start despite being the team’s leader in yards rushing and rushing touchdowns.
“We are going to continue to run the football,” Wannstedt said. “(McCoy) will start at tailback this week…we’ll take a look at the combination of Bostick and McCoy to see if it gives us a spark.”
The Panther offense has been stagnant that past two weeks, only scoring 23 points in losses to Michigan State and UConn.
To make matters worse for the Panthers, the Virginia defensive front will provide quite the challenge for Pitt’s offensive line, which has started with the same five in the lineup only twice this season.
If tackle Jason Pinkston is unable to play because of a nagging shoulder injury, Mike McGlynn will once again take his place. McGlynn and fellow tackle Jeff Otah will have their hands full with Virginia’s All-American caliber defensive ends, Chris Long and Jeffrey Fitzgerald.
Long and Fitzgerald have been dominant up front for the ‘Cavs; they are second and third on the team respectively in tackles, account for eight of the team’s 13 sacks, and have three INTs between the two of them.
“They are a very physical team," Wannstedt said of the Virginia defense. "Their front seven is probably as strong and physical as we have faced all year.”
Not to be outdone, Pitt’s front seven and defense have turned heads all season long, ranking in the top 25 in several defensive categories, including total defense. They look to get back on track with a strong performance against Virginia.
Four of the top 10 tacklers on the Pitt defense are defensive linemen, including redshirt freshman Greg Romeus who recorded eight of his 16 tackles last week against UConn, including his first career sack.
Groh said Pitt’s defense was not overly complicated, but presented some unique challenges.
“There are not a lot of schemes involved. There’s some movement but if you are going to move the ball against these guys you’ve got to dig them out of there. They have some of those 6-2, 290-pound point-of-attack kind of guys and it’s hard to dig them out.”
Junior Scott McKillop has been impressive as well, filling the gap left by H.B. Blades. McKillop leads the team and the Big East in tackles with 42, and has been a leader on the young Panther defense.
The game is a litmus test for both teams as they enter the middle part of the season. Pitt has dropped two straight and now looks at a daunting conference schedule, while Virginia has won three straight games and sits atop the ACC Coastal Division at 3-1.
Both teams need this game to inch one win closer to becoming bowl eligible at the end of the season, but Pitt faces an uphill battle to get six wins if they can’t beat Virginia. The loss would drop Pitt to 2-3, with games against Cincinnati, Louisville, Rutgers, and South Florida before traveling to Morgantown for the 100th edition of the “Backyard Brawl.”
Virginia is already in a good position in the ACC: All three of their wins have been in-conference, and they have games against Middle Tennessee State and UConn before returning to ACC play at Maryland.
The Cavaliers could potentially enter the home stretch of the season needing only one win to become bowl eligible while facing Virginia Tech and 2006 ACC champs Wake Forest in the last three weeks of the season.
Keys of the Game
-Pressure on the QB
Both teams start young QBs and have had productive defensive lines to this point in the season
Pitt has been killed by them in the first four games, turning the ball over 12 times, while Virginia has forced eight and can turn opponent’s mistakes into points. Pitt gave up 17 points off turnovers last week, putting pressure on their defense.
-Establishing a running game
Both teams need to run the football to loosen up the defense and make life easier for their young QB’s. LeSean McCoy (Pitt) and Cedric Peerman (Virginia) are on pace for 1,000 yard seasons, and they could both have huge impacts come Saturday.
-First and third quarter production
This will be key for both offenses; Virginia has gotten off to fast starts all four weeks, outscoring opponents 45-12 in the opening period, but has come out flat to start the second half so far this season. Virginia has scored only three points while giving up 27 to open the second half, while Pitt has not been scored on so far in the third quarter.
Players to Watch
-Virginia DE Chris Long
The Stats: 28 tackles (7.0 tackles/game), including 7 TFL and 6 sacks. Long also leads the team in QB pressures, with 11 and has one interception.
Why to Watch: Long is living up to his father’s legacy and is becoming a dominant force for the ‘Cavs at the right time. He has shown the ability to consistently pressure and sack the quarterback, but his 28 tackles prove he can shut down the run as well.
Long will be matched up with either Mike McGlynn or Jason Pinkston, who have been unhealthy and inconsistent this season.
-Virginia DE Jeff Fitzgerald
The Stats: 27 tackles (6.8 tackles/game), including 6 TFL and 2 sacks. Fitzgerald leads the team in interceptions with two, and has broken up four passes.
Why to Watch: Fitzgerald is coming off a freshman All-American campaign and has picked up right where he left off.
With a lot of attention being paid to his teammate Long, and his talent, it's easy to see why Fitzgerald is making a big impact for Virginia.
He has already tied the school record for INTs by a lineman with four, making him a dual threat against the pass. The matchup between Fitzgerald and Pitt tackle Jeff Otah should be one of the best battles to watch on the line all game long.
-Virginia QB Jeremy Sewell
The Stats: 47-79 for 420 yards passing with 2 TDs and 2 INTs. Sewell has a completion percentage of 59.5 and has averaged 105 yards passing/game.
Why to Watch: While his numbers have not been overwhelming so far this season, Sewell has found a groove in the last three games, completing 64 percent of his passes. He has also gone three games without being picked off, throwing his two TD passes in that span.
Sewell may be hitting his stride at the right time against a Panther secondary that was not as tough against the pass vs. UConn as it was in the weeks prior.
-Pitt RB LeSean McCoy
The Stats: 417 yards rushing on 65 attempts for a 6.4 YPC average. He also has 5 TDs with a long of 64. McCoy has caught 11 passes for 40 yards, and has thrown one ball for 18 yards.
Why to Watch: McCoy is living up to the hype as one of the premier freshman running backs in the nation with his shifty moves and ability to get out in the open and create.
Against Michigan State, McCoy rushed for a career-high 172 yards and one score, and looks to duplicate that performance against a strong Virginia defensive line.
-Pitt QB Pat Bostick
The Stats: 27-42 (64.3 percent) for 230 yards with one TD and four INTs.
Why to Watch: Bostick watched his teammate Kevin Smith get booed off the field last week vs. UConn, and had the stadium come to a standing ovation as he entered the game in the second half. This week, he's making his first start against a Virginia team that will go after the quarterback.
It will be Bostick's job to remain composed, take what the defense gives him, and avoid forcing throws that aren’t there. Bostick showed some promise last week against UConn, but will need to cut down on turnovers if he wants to lead Pitt to victory.