By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — As the Virginia Cavaliers progressed through a grueling non-conference schedule that included games against three teams ranked in the latest Associated Press poll — No. 15 Notre Dame, No. 20 UCLA and No. 25 Boise State — they could be forgiven for looking forward to ACC play.
That eight-game stretch starts Saturday for the Cavaliers, but the level of competition will remain high in their ACC opener. At 12:30 p.m., UVA (1-3) faces Pittsburgh (3-1, 1-0) at 68,400-seat Heinz Field, also home of the NFL’s Steelers.
The Wahoos, whose lone win came against Football Championship Subdivision member William & Mary, haven’t played since losing 56-14 to Boise State at Scott Stadium on Sept. 25.
The Panthers upended Virginia Tech 17-13 on Saturday afternoon in Blacksburg. The Hokies finished with only 100 yards of offense.
“Pittsburgh has always been a very tough, physical team,” Virginia head coach Mike London noted Monday in his press conference at John Paul Jones Arena, and the Panthers’ identity hasn’t changed with Pat Narduzzi in charge of the program.
Narduzzi, 49, came to Pitt after eight seasons as Michigan State’s defensive coordinator. The Panthers lost tailback James Conner, the ACC’s player of the year in 2014, to a season-ending knee injury this summer, but one of his backups, 6-2, 230-pound Qadree Ollison, is averaging 106.8 yards per game rushing.
“They’re still a very physical football team,” London said. “You look at their offensive line. They double-team and try to push to the next level. Conner was an exceptional player, very tough, tough player, downhill player — it’s unfortunate that his injury occurred.”
When the teams met at Scott Stadium last year, UVA built a 24-3 halftime lead and held on for a 24-19 victory. The Panthers have changed coaches since that game, but “it still looks pretty much the same to me,” Virginia safety Quin Blanding said Monday.
“They have their go-to guy, Tyler Boyd, [back] as well, and they have pretty strong running backs, so we’ve just got to get prepared for them and go out and win.”
Boyd, a 6-2, 200-pound junior, is one of the ACC’s top wide receivers. In only three games this season, he has 26 catches for 274 yards and one TD. He also has returned two kickoffs, for 50 yards.
Pitt will try to get the ball in Boyd’s hands as much as possible, so “being conscious and aware of where he aligns is critically important to us,” London said.
Narduzzi, at his weekly press conference at Pitt, was asked Monday about opponents’ focus on Boyd.
“They have a lot of double coverage on him,” Narduzzi said. “They have them inside, outside, one guy on top of him, obviously on passing downs. I would double him too.”
Virginia, which opened the season with a 34-16 loss at UCLA, has played its past three games at Scott Stadium. The `Hoos are seeking their first road victory since Nov. 3, 2012, when they won at NC State. Since then, UVa has dropped 11 straight road games.
For that streak to end Saturday, the Cavaliers know, they’ll have to play much better than they did against Boise State.
“That wasn’t a good game for us,” London said. “We have to take [the Pitt] game and use it as a game that can also springboard us and help us move into the rest of conference play.”
The opponents that defeated UVA last month are a combined 12-3. The Cavaliers believe that experience will pay dividends for them in ACC play.
“Coach London always tells us we’re going to play the best,” Blanding said, “and that’s what we did, we played the best. We can’t sit back and dwell on it now. We’ve just got to move forward.”
Virginia’s second season starts Saturday.
“This is a big game for us,” junior tailback Taquan Mizzell said. “We’re 0-0 in conference play. That’s all we’re thinking about now. The games that we had, we learned from them. We watched film [and] got better from those games, but it’s 0-0 right now.”
REINFORCEMENTS: Senior cornerback Demetrious Nicholson, a key member of the secondary, missed the Boise State game for medical reasons, but he’s expected to play against Pitt, London said.
On the other side of the ball, sophomore wide receiver Doni Dowling has been cleared to play, London said. Dowling had surgery in February to repair a torn ACL, and in August he suffered a setback during training camp that kept him out of UVA’s first four games.
As a true freshman last season, Dowling caught 17 passes for 141 yards. With the announcement Monday that wideout Andre Levrone is among the players out with season-ending injuries, Dowling’s return further bolsters a receiving corps that recently welcomed back T.J. Thorpe, a transfer from North Carolina.
COMMITTED: Fall break was this past weekend at the University. With no game, UVA players, like most of their fellow students, could have left town for a couple of days.
Instead, many of them chose to stay in Charlottesville. The players worked out together Saturday and then watched the Pitt-Virginia Tech game that afternoon.
“We were just out there trying to get better and improve our game for the rest of the season,” Blanding said.
Junior offensive tackle Eric Smith said the players are “not down at all. We’re not moping around. A lot of the guys stayed here over this past weekend, simply because we know where we want to be, as opposed to what the record shows right now.”
Smith, who’s from the Atlanta area, had not planned a trip home for fall break. Still, Smith said, he would have stayed at UVA “even if I were from Richmond or the 7-5-7 area. I knew there was work to be done. Bye week, I’m here. That’s just my mindset.”
Smith said the team’s leaders, including wide receiver Canaan Severin and quarterback Matt Johns, “all have different demeanors, but they all kind of relay the same message: Don’t beat up on yourself. It’s still early in the season. We have so much we can do. We have conference play [left].”
Asked if UVa needs to make a statement at Pitt, Smith nodded. “It’s the only thing we’re thinking about right now. That’s how important it is: 1-0. We’re 0-0 right now. Let’s start our 1-0 in the conference. It’s as simple as that.”
Blanding said: “I think the bye week really helped us. We just gotta get back onto our grind and get the right mindset going and go win out in ACC play.”
DUAL THREAT: Mizzell, UVA’s leading rusher this season, is second on the team in both receptions (22) and receiving yards (292). He’s first in touchdown receptions, with three.
As a sophomore in 2014, Mizzell caught 39 passes but averaged only 6.9 yards per reception. He’s averaging 13.3 yards this season, in part, he said, because it’s harder for defenses to key on him.
In 2013 and again last season, Mizzell was the Cavaliers’ No. 3 tailback, behind Kevin Parks and Khalek Shepherd. When Mizzell was in the game, opponents knew Virginia liked to use him as a receiver, and they defended him accordingly.
“But this year,” Mizzell said Monday, “I’m running the ball, I’m catching the ball, I’m blocking, [so] you may not know what I’m doing that play.”
He’s listed as a tailback, but Mizzell often lines up in the slot. Does he have a preference?
“Honestly, I don’t know,” said Mizzell, a graduate of Bayside High in Virginia Beach.
“I really enjoy both. Honestly, I love playing running back, that’s what I’ve been doing all my life. But then, I think around my 12th-grade year I [started to see] that I was OK at running routes and catching the ball. So my main focus now is just making plays, whether it’s from the slot or the running back position.”