By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
PITTSBURGH — After a disappointing day at Heinz Field, UVa’s defensive players remained steadfast in their support of their offensive counterparts Saturday. There was no need for the defense to point fingers. The offense readily shouldered most of the blame for Virginia’s 14-3 loss to ACC foe Pittsburgh.
“You’re frustrated as an offense,” junior tight end Jake McGee said, “because you got [UVa’s defenders] working their butt off the whole game and doing everything they’re supposed to … As an offense, we didn’t get anything going, and it’s something that’s frustrating and we hope to fix.”
On an afternoon when Virginia’s defense forced three turnovers, sacked Pitt quarterback Tom Savage seven times and allowed only 199 yards, its offense managed 188 yards and an Ian Frye field goal.
Seventy-seven of those yards came on a fourth-quarter drive that ended when McGee, in the end zone, couldn’t come down with a high pass from sophomore quarterback David Watford on fourth-and-2 from the 3.
Frye’s 32-yard field goal had pulled Virginia to 14-3 late in the third quarter. Had the Cavaliers let Frye attempt a 20-yarder after the fourth-quarter drive stalled at the Pitt 3, this might well have been an eight-point game with 3:30 to play. But head coach Mike London, after conferring with his assistants, including associate head coach for offense Tom O’Brien, chose the riskier option on fourth down.
The gamble failed, and by the time the Wahoos (2-2 overall, 0-1 ACC) got the ball back, only 17 seconds remained on the clock.
“Obviously we didn’t do a good job of executing today,” London said after the Cavaliers’ first road game.
The Panthers (3-1, 2-1) scored all of their points in the first quarter, on “drives” that covered 19 and 18 yards, respectively. UVa fumbled four times in the first 15 minutes and lost two of them. Each turnover set up a Pitt TD.
On the first, junior Dominique Terrell, back to receive a punt, wasn’t able to field it cleanly and decided against a return. But Terrell, whose indecisiveness had almost hurt the Wahoos on Pitt’s first punt, failed to vacate the area after the ball bounced.
“I’m supposed to just go away from it, but I was trying to save some field position [by downing it],” Terrell said.
Instead, the ball hit his leg, and Pitt pounced on it at the UVa 19. Four plays later, 230-pound tailback James Conner bulldozed safety Brandon Phelps on a 6-yard touchdown run, and the Panthers were ahead to stay.
Terrell had looked poised on punt returns in the Cavaliers’ first three games, but his performance on special teams Saturday evoked memories of his shaky moments as a true freshman in 2011. Khalek Shepherd took over as UVa’s primary punt-returner last year.
“Today [Terrell] wasn’t on top of his game, and some of those decisions, they cost us in terms of field position,” London said. “One was a turnover. He’s got to be better at that, or we’ve got to find better. Either way, we can’t give up a field position switch like that when you don’t make the other team earn it.
“We have other guys that have practiced being punt-returners, and we’ll look at all options. We’ll look at all options for returners, for receivers, for whatever it may be. We’ll look at all options to get better as a football team.”
Virginia’s next drive ended in disaster, too. On third-and-10 from the Cavaliers’ 20, Watford dropped sophomore center Ross Burbank’s shotgun snap, and the Panthers recovered at the 18. Two plays later, Savage hit wide receiver Devin Street with a 15-yard touchdown pass.
On UVa’s first possession of the second quarter, redshirt freshman Jackson Matteo replaced Burbank at center, but the offense continued to sputter against a Pitt defense that came in ranked 118th out of 123 teams nationally in scoring defense (41 points per game) and 101st in total defense (445 yards per game).
Virginia finished with one run of more than 20 yards — Terrell, a wide receiver, gained 21 on an end-around — and one completion that gained more than 20 yards. That was from Watford to another junior wideout, Darius Jennings, who picked up 27 yards.
Watford, in his fourth career start, had little time in the pocket to survey the field. The Panthers’ defensive line sacked him three times and repeatedly forced Watford (15 for 37 passing for 123 yards) into off-balance and inaccurate throws. When he did hit his target, Watford often saw his throws dropped.
“It seemed like every pass play we were doing something wrong,” McGee said. “So it’s something we just gotta improve on. It probably cost us today.”
The Cavaliers were 3 for 18 on third-down conversions and 1 for 4 on fourth-down attempts.
“That was our demise,” London said. “We couldn’t move the ball in order to give us field position, to help us win. We have to take care of a lot of things. That’s one of the things we need to address and get it fixed quickly.”
The offense’s problems meant a busy day for Alec Vozenilek. The redshirt junior from Richmond punted nine times. He averaged 46.6 yards and had a 77-yarder, the fourth-longest in the program’s history. But Vozelinek came away from the game with mixed feelings.
“It’s good when your punter’s not out there at all,” he said. “It means your offense is doing well and moving the ball. I’ll do my job when I go out there, but it’s best if I don’t go out there. You always want to see the offense doing well.”
At halftime, it was 14-0, and if not for the terrific play of Virginia’s defense, the margin probably would have been greater.
“As an offense, we shot ourselves in the foot today,” McGee said. “I don’t know exactly what to pinpoint it on right now, but the defense played great. They really stopped `em the whole game, and the only points [Pitt] did score were off turnovers.
Coordinator Jon Tenuta’s defense gave the offense multiple opportunities. The Cavaliers forced nine punts. Junior cornerback Demetrious Nicholson and junior safety Anthony Harris each had intercepted a pass, and Harris forced a fumble that senior defensive end Jake Snyder recovered early in the third quarter.
“We always thought that we were a great defense,” said sophomore tackle David Dean, who had 1.5 sacks. “We have great players, and this kind of shows us what we’re capable of. It shows us where we’re going to be moving forward.”
UVa defenders “played aggressive and they played hard,” London said. “We created turnovers. We sacked the quarterback. We hit the quarterback, and when you do that you expect the opportunities on the other side to give you a chance to score points.”
The one fourth-down attempt the Cavaliers converted — an 11-yard completion from Watford to Terrell — moved them to the Pitt 21 with about six minutes left. With three defenders around him, McGee then caught a 10-yard pass from Watford for another first down.
A 7-yard run by Watford followed, but Shepherd gained only 1 yard on second-and-3 from the 4. On third down, Watford passed to McGee in the left flat, but the throw was behind McGee, who had to turn back to the ball to make the catch. That slowed his momentum and made it easier for Pitt’s Anthony Gonzalez to tackle McGee for no gain.
On fourth down, McGee was well-covered in the back of the end zone and might have come down out of bounds had he been able to pull in Watford’s high pass.
Of the offense’s futility, McGee said, it’s “something I can’t really put my finger on right now. It’s something we have to get back in to work on [Sunday], and we can’t really dwell on it too long and let it hold us down. We’ll just have to do the best we can to really get this offense going.”
London said: “What I told everyone was that this has got to get fixed, and it’s not about a popularity contest. It’s about finding those players that can be consistent and give us a chance to win, and that’s the first thing we’ll work on on Sunday, is finding the who and the what, and move on and move forward from there.”
Major changes won’t be necessary on the defensive side. Against Pitt, UVa finished with 13 tackles for loss, including seven sacks. Senior tackle Brent Urban had four tackles for loss. In his first college start, outside linebacker Max Valles, a true freshman, led the `Hoos with 2.5 sacks.
“Max is a great player, and he plays fast every snap,” Dean said. “He just brings something special to the defense, something we need.”
Valles said: “I didn’t exactly see it coming, but the guys on the team gave me the confidence all week. They tell me every day, `You’re a great player. You just have to show it and come out and know that you’re a great player.’ ”
A win Saturday would have given the Cavaliers their best record through four games since 2007, when they finished 9-4.
“The only thing we can do is go back and look [at the film], stay positive as a team,” Harris said. “We do have to stay together through a time like this. We gotta look as a defense to help the offense improve and just look to see what we can improve ourselves.”
UP NEXT: Virginia’s final non-conference game is next Saturday at Scott Stadium. At noon, UVa (2-2) will face Mid-American Conference power Ball State (4-1).
The Cardinals defeated MAC rival Toledo 31-24 on Saturday. Ball State, David Letterman’s alma mater, finished 9-4 last season.
The `Hoos and the Cardinals have never met in football.