By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
PITTSBURGH — From Pittsburgh International Airport to Heinz Field, the buses carrying the University of Virginia football team rolled into the heart of this city Friday afternoon.
For the Cavaliers, this was not like arriving in Tallahassee, Fla., or Clemson, S.C., college towns where it’s abundantly evident when there’s a game the next day.
Here, the NFL’s Steelers rule, and there’s not nearly as much buzz about University of Pittsburgh football. If the Panthers continue to win, though, their popularity figures to grow, and they’re off to an impressive start under first-year head coach Pat Narduzzi.
“They’ve been playing extremely well,” Virginia head coach Mike London said.
The Wahoos, by contrast, struggled in the season’s opening month, during which their opponents included three teams ranked in the latest Associated Press poll: No. 15 Notre Dame, No. 20 UCLA and No. 25 Boise State. But the ‘Hoos are coming off a productive bye week, and they’ll try Saturday to halt the Panthers’ momentum.
At 12:30 p.m., in a game to be televised on the ACC Network, UVA (1-3 overall) meets Coastal Division rival Pitt (3-1, 1-0) at 68,400-seat Heinz Field.
“I kind of hit a restart button on this season,” Virginia middle linebacker Micah Kiser said. “We’re starting ACC play and we’re 0-0, and I’m just trying to get better each week.”
The Panthers are coming off a 17-13 win over Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. Pitt recorded seven sacks at Lane Stadium and held Tech to 100 yards of total offense.
“They have a great front seven,” UVA quarterback Matt Johns said of the Panthers.
The ‘Hoos have their strengths, too. The challenge for his team, London said, is to “put a four-quarter complete game together.”
In each of the Cavaliers’ first three games Ã¢â‚¬” a 34-16 loss to UCLA, a 34-27 loss to Notre Dame, and a 35-25 win over William & Mary Ã¢â‚¬” they had stretches in which they played well. The ‘Hoos produced virtually no highlights in their most recent game, a 56-14 loss to Boise State on Sept. 25, but they say they’re not dwelling on that defeat.
“Boise State’s behind us, and we’re worried about this weekend,” Johns said Wednesday.
A victory Saturday would represent a significant breakthrough for Virginia, which has lost 11 consecutive road games since winning at NC State on Nov. 3, 2012.
At Scott Stadium last season, UVa defeated Pitt 24-19. For the Panthers, however, much has changed in their first season under Narduzzi, a former defensive coordinator at Michigan State.
“They run very different schemes, so it’s not the scheme that they ran last year on defense,” Johns said. “But they’re very well-coached and they play hard and they play physical, and it’s just something where we need to bring our A-game.”
For UVA’s defense, forcing its first turnover of the season is among its goals Saturday.
“It’s pretty frustrating,” Kiser said of the Cavaliers’ inability to come up with a takeaway. “The guys out there are playing hard. It just hasn’t happened yet.”
Another goal for Virginia: slowing Pitt tailback Qadree Ollison, a 6-2, 230-pound redshirt freshman who is the ACC’s second-leading rusher (106.8 yards per game).
“We know first and foremost they’re going to try to establish the run,” said Kiser, UVA’s leading tackler, “so we’re going to have to stop the run.”
For the Cavaliers’ offense, increased productivity in the running game is essential. Virginia ranks 122nd nationally in rushing offense (93.8 yards per game), largely because its veteran offensive line has not consistently generated the push many observers expected this season.
Virginia rushed for only 40 yards against Boise State, whose front seven dominated the line of scrimmage.
The line has “the mindset going into each game that the game depends on us,” said offensive tackle Eric Smith, and so its performance against the Broncos was especially disappointing.
“We have to step it up,” Smith said.
Jay Whitmire, a fifth-year senior who backed up tackles Michael Mooney and Smith during Virginia’s first four games, will start at guard Saturday in place of junior Sean Karl. Whitmire, who missed last season with a back injury, started eight games at guard in 2013.
London hopes that move pays dividends Saturday at a stadium where UVA fell 14-3 to Pitt in 2013. September brought more anguish than joy for the Cavaliers, but the start of conference play provides an opportunity for them to change their fortunes.
“Everybody’s optimistic,” Kiser said. “We still have the whole ACC schedule left in front of us.”