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Sept. 27, 2013

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PITTSBURGH — The charter plane touched down at Pittsburgh International Airport around 4:40 p.m. Friday, and the University of Virginia football team disembarked a few minutes later. Then came a bus ride from the airport to the downtown area, during which the Cavaliers saw the Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela rivers on a sparkling fall afternoon.

For UVa, which plays ACC newcomer Pittsburgh at Heinz Field on Saturday afternoon, this road trip has been a long time coming. UVa (2-1) has yet to play outside of Charlottesville this season.

Not since 1969 has Virginia played its first road game later than Sept. 28, and the season-opener that year fell on Sept. 20.

“It’ll be an interesting challenge coming up,” defensive end Jake Snyder, a fifth-year senior, said Monday.

“This first road game is always interesting, especially with all the young guys we have, guys traveling for the first time. It’s kind of an eye-opening experience to see how everything works, getting on the plane, getting to the hotel and all that stuff. But once we get there, man, it’s just football, just like we always play. That’s what we talk about at practice, and that’s how we’re going to play on Saturday. We’re going to play this as if we’re at home.”

Fewer players travel to away games than dress out when the Wahoos play at Scott Stadium. That changes the dynamic when the team is on the road.

“You have a small group who’s really going to be going to battle with you,” junior tight end Jake McGee said, “and you gotta really look to each other for support when someone gets down or something like that, whereas at home you can sort of feed off the crowd. When you’re on the road, it really brings a team together and shows what they have in the tank.

“I think road games and home games have a different mindset. Home games you sort of build off the crowd with positive energy. Road games it’s still off the crowd, but it’s a crowd that’s against you. So it fires you up in that way, too, where you have a group of people that you want to send home unhappy.”

This is also the ACC opener for Virginia, which has sandwiched wins over BYU (19-16) and VMI (49-0) around a loss to No. 2 Oregon (59-10).

Pitt has already played two conference games. The Panthers, who opened the season with a 41-13 loss to Florida State, won a 58-55 shootout with Duke last weekend in Durham, N.C. In between, Pitt hammered New Mexico 49-27.

Against Duke, quarterback Tom Savage threw for 424 yards and tied the ACC record with six touchdown passes. His targets include wide receivers Devin Street and Tyler Boyd. Between them, Street, a 6-4 senior, and Boyd, a 6-2 freshman, have caught 33 passes for 701 yards and six touchdowns.

The 6-5, 230-pound Savage, who began his college career at Rutgers, later transferred to Arizona before landing at Pitt, where he’s a fifth-year senior. Unlike the quarterbacks for BYU and Oregon, Savage is not a running threat.

“We know he’s going to sit back there and throw the deep ball,” Snyder said, “and we gotta get after him and put some pressure on him.”

If the `Hoos aren’t able to do so, they figure to have problems defensively. Street and Boyd might be the best receiving tandem UVa will see all season, said safeties coach Anthony Poindexter. “They’re very talented guys, and they got a quarterback that can make all the throws.

“It’ll be a big challenge for us, and they got a power running game, which adds a different wrinkle to what we have seen mostly. [Pitt is] old school: pound you, pound you, pound you and then play-action pass off of it.”

Tailback James Conner, a 6-2, 230-pound freshman, is averaging 6.9 yards per game and has rushed for three touchdowns.

“BYU and Oregon were that fast-paced, spread offense, and this is more power football,” Snyder said. “This is something we pride our defense on. We want to be able to line up and stop the run and hit offenses in the mouth, and we’ll see what we’re made of this week, because they’re going to bring it and they’re going to run the ball and work the running game to throw the play-action pass.”

UVa totaled 580 yards against an overmatched VMI defense last weekend, but questions remain about offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild’s group. Against BYU and Oregon, the Cavaliers struggled to move the ball consistently, and sophomore quarterback David Watford has thrown twice as many interceptions (six) as TD passes (three) this season.

“I haven’t performed up to par,” Watford said Monday, though he sees signs of progress in the offense.

“Through the first couple weeks, I think we’ve taken tremendous strides,” Watford said, “and there’s [more] room to improve from here.”

Especially early in games. Of the 78 points UVa has scored this season, only seven have come in the first quarter.

“It’s important to get off to a fast start, especially on the road, playing a good team like Pitt,” Watford said.

Virginia will be without two injured regulars on offense Saturday — tight end Zachary Swanson and offensive guard Conner Davis. Tailbacks Khalek Shepherd and Taquan Mizzell may be available against Pitt, but they have not fully recovered from the ankle injuries they suffered Sept. 7 against Oregon.

Starting tailback Kevin Parks is healthy, though, and he had 135 yards rushing and 69 receiving against VMI. And then there’s Daniel Hamm, a walk-on who rushed for 136 yards and two touchdowns versus VMI.

Running backs coach Larry Lewis said Hamm “has proven that he will have a role in what we’re doing. And I think he can take pressure off of the other guys. I think he did well enough that I think we can count on him.”

Asked what surprised him about Hamm, Lewis laughed and said, “No. 1, that nobody recruited him. I think that’s a pretty good surprise.”

Lewis added: “He does in the game exactly what he does in practice. He doesn’t miss very many assignments, he goes full speed, he’s got good burst and good speed, he’s a tough kid, he listens, he’s coachable. All the things you really want.”

As for the challenge of dividing playing time among four tailbacks, Lewis said, “No. 1 we gotta get healthy, and if a guy’s not 100 percent, it’s gonna be hard to give somebody a lot of reps. Guys that are 100 percent and can go 100 percent are gonna get the reps right away.

“As you build into that, I think there’s certain things that each guy can do. It’s a long season and we’re not very big back there, by any means, and if your legs wear out, you’re done. So I think the more we can spell guys at this point early and keep rotating some guys in, we will finish a lot stronger.”

These teams haven’t met since 2007, when the `Hoos romped 44-14 at Scott Stadium. A year earlier, in the season-opener, the Panthers pounded the Cavaliers 38-13 at Heinz Field.

A victory Saturday would give the `Hoos their best record after four games since 2007, when they finished 9-4.

“It would be huge for us,” junior linebacker Daquan Romero said, “for our confidence level, for us as a team, for our fans, for everything.”

In 2011, their second year under head coach Mike London, the Cavaliers won four of their five regular-season road games. UVa became the first team to beat Florida State and Miami on the road in the same season.

Virginia went 1-4 away from Scott Stadium in 2012. The victory was a 33-6 rout of NC State in Raleigh, and Virginia hopes to recapture that magic Saturday.

“I feel like when you get the crowd upset and you just hear nothing but silence, there’s nothing better than that feeling in another stadium,” Romero said.

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