Oct. 4, 2014

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — The football team picked to finish last in the ACC’s Coastal Division can ensure itself at least another week in first place with a win Saturday at Scott Stadium.

At 7:30 p.m., UVa (3-2, 1-0) hosts Pittsburgh (3-2, 1-0) in an intriguing early-season matchup.

The Panthers rank 15th among Football Bowl Subdivision teams in rushing yards per game (269.4). The Cavaliers have allowed only 86.6 rushing yards per game, which ranks 10th nationally.

Moreover, Virginia and Pitt are tied with Georgia Tech (4-0, 1-0), which hosts Miami (3-2, 1-1) on Saturday night, for the Coastal lead. In the preseason ACC poll, the Panthers were picked to finish sixth in the Coastal and the Wahoos seventh.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to get another win in the ACC, to be 2-0 in the ACC,” UVa tailback Kevin Parks said Wednesday. “We weren’t talking about that last year. This is a new year. We know that, and we know what’s at stake.”

Last year the Cavaliers finished winless in ACC play and 2-10 overall. The low points of Mike London’s fourth season as Virginia’s head coach included a 14-3 loss at Pitt in which his team gained only 188 yards.

“That was a long trip back from Pittsburgh,” junior wide receiver Canaan Severin said this week.

“But that’s last year. They’re a different team, and we’re a different team, and this year’s team is special, I feel.”

The `Hoos “didn’t get much going offensively” at Pitt last year, Parks acknowledged, “but that’s how the game goes sometimes. It’s a new year, so anything can happen.”

A lot has happened for the Cavaliers already this season, much of it good. Their losses — each by eight points — were to teams that are nationally ranked, No. 8 UCLA and No. 18 BYU. Virginia’s victories have been over, in order, Richmond, then-No. 21 Louisville and Kent State.

With a win over Pitt, UVa would match its 2012 victory total, with half the regular season remaining.

“We’ve worked really hard for it,” said offensive guard Conner Davis, a fifth-year senior. “We’re not surprised at how well we’ve done this year. Maybe for an outsider who doesn’t see what we’ve done from winter to spring to this summer, it might be a surprise off of last year, but as a player I’m not surprised or shocked.”

Neither is All-America safety Anthony Harris, one of the Cavaliers’ captains.

“I feel like guys have been able to reap the benefits of working really hard in the offseason, going through ups and downs with each other,” Harris said.

Virginia’s defense had stretches of dominance in 2013, most notably against Pitt. The `Hoos forced three turnovers, sacked quarterback Tom Savage seven times and allowed only 199 yards.

With the core of that defense back this season, including Harris, linebackers Henry Coley, Daquan Romero and Max Valles, and linemen Eli Harold and David Dean, the Cavaliers were expected pose problems for opposing offenses, and that’s been the case.

Virginia has forced 18 turnovers this season.

“I’m liking everything right now,” Romero said, “just the unity we have on defense. Everybody’s having fun out there.”

UVa’s offense was more of a mystery heading into this season. David Watford, who started every game at quarterback last year, had dropped to No. 3 on the depth chart, behind Greyson Lambert and Matt Johns, and the line had to be rebuilt after losing Morgan Moses and Luke Bowanko to the NFL and Jay Whitmire to a serious back injury.

Many of the preseason concerns about the offense, however, have faded in Steve Fairchild’s second season as coordinator. Lambert and Johns have played well, and UVa’s wide receivers have shown dramatic improvement. The line hasn’t dominated, especially in the running game, but Virginia’s quarterbacks have been sacked only four times.

“Guys know the system,” Parks said. “That’s a big key for this year, and we knew that going into the season.”

The Cavaliers totaled 519 yards against BYU on Sept. 20 and 520 against Kent State last weekend, the first time since 2004 they’ve topped 500 yards in consecutive games.

“We’re starting to get that identity on offense,” Davis said. “We’re putting up big yardage in back-to-back games, so we’re getting confidence, not just as individuals, but as a unit, and that’s what you gotta have.”

Three players share time at tailback — Parks, senior Khalek Shepherd and sophomore Taquan Mizzell — and five wideouts have at least nine receptions apiece this season, led by Severin (20 catches for 225 yards and two touchdowns).

“It’s nice to have multiple weapons,” Davis said. “A lot of guys are getting thrown to. A lot of guys are carrying the ball. We’re just keeping guys fresh, and if one guy goes down, the next guy goes up. It just shows that as a unit we’re talented and we have the players to attack you from multiple angles.”

Lambert sprained an ankle in the second half against BYU and sat out the Kent State game. He’s listed as questionable for Pitt’s visit to Scott Stadium, as is senior cornerback Demetrious Nicholson, who made his 2014 debut last weekend and came up with a pivotal interception late in the first half.

With or without Nicholson, coordinator Jon Tenuta’s defense knows it must pay close attention to the Panthers’ No. 24, tailback James Conner. A 6-2, 250-pound sophomore, Conner ranks third nationally in rushing yards per game (158.2).

In last year’s game against UVa at Heinz Field, Conner rushed for a TD but finished with only 27 yards on 15 carries.

“You just gotta make sure you’re squared-up when you hit him,” Romero said. “You can’t arm-tackle somebody that size. He’s running downhill.”

For their first night game at Scott Stadium since Nov. 15, 2012, when they hosted North Carolina on a Thursday, the `Hoos are breaking out all-white uniforms and a new helmet design.

“The atmosphere is something you live for: Saturday night under the lights,” Severin said.

Romero said: “I always say when the lights go on, the stars come out.”

Virginia will be playing at home for the fifth time in six games. The Cavaliers, off next weekend, play four of their final six regular-season games away from Charlottesville.

“This is the next rung on the ladder for us, and it’s one of the few last home games going down the stretch for us,” London said. “We’ll be on the road after this, and so this game is an important game for us in a lot of ways, but particularly having a chance to win a game here at home going into a bye, going into a stretch where you’re away, is very, very important.”

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