By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
PITTSBURGH — Had the Virginia Cavaliers been as porous defensively over the last 45 minutes as they were in the first quarter Saturday, they might have given up close to 900 yards in their ACC game against Coastal Division foe Pittsburgh.
UVa tightened up, however, and the Panthers found the going much tougher after scoring 17 first-quarter points. Pitt, which gained 217 yards in the first 15 minutes, picked up only 146 yards the rest of the way.
“If we played the way we did the last three quarters in the first quarter we would have won the game,” Virginia linebacker Zach Bradshaw said.
Alas for the Wahoos, their inability to string together four solid quarters — on either side of the ball — cost them again, and they fell 26-19 on a sparkling fall afternoon at Heinz Field.
After the defense forced a Pitt three-and-out, the offense took over at the UVA 28-yard line with 3:44 remaining. The drive initially went backward, courtesy of two penalties on Virginia, but on fourth-and-23 from the 15, quarterback Matt Johns found wide receiver T.J. Thorpe for a 32-yard gain.
An 11-yard completion to another wideout, Keeon Johnson, followed, and suddenly the `Hoos had a first down at the Pitt 42.
They went no farther. Four consecutive incompletions followed, the last a Johns pass intended for Thorpe, with whom a defensive back appeared to interfere in front of the Pitt sideline. No call was forthcoming, though, and the Panthers ran out the final 28 seconds to improve to 4-1 overall and 2-0 in the ACC.
Virginia fell to 1-4, 0-1. Its victory came Sept. 19 against William & Mary. Its losses have been to teams — No. 15 Notre Dame, No. 20 UCLA, No. 25 Boise State and, now, Pitt — that are a combined 18-4.
“We battled today, but obviously [it wasn’t] good enough,” head coach Mike London said. “Not good enough to win a football game. [Pitt is] a good football team, and you have to be able to capitalize and minimize your mistakes.”
The road loss was the 12th straight for the Cavaliers, who haven’t won away from Scott Stadium since Nov. 3, 2012, when they defeated NC State in Raleigh.
“Any loss is tough to take,” said wideout Canaan Severin, whose 32-yard touchdown reception with 5:50 remaining cut Pitt’s lead to 26-19.
“We’ve just got to bounce back and keep on working. We’re right there, so we’ve just got to keep on going.”
The loss to Pitt stung. Still, players said, they believe the ‘Hoos are close to a breakthrough.
“A couple plays away … We’ve just got to make it happen, and that’s on us,” said Severin, who finished with three receptions for 50 yards.
“It’s just a matter of two or three plays,” said Johns, who completed 17 of 33 passes for 209 yards and one TD, with one interception.
“I missed T.J. on the deep post early in the game, and then the next one was just right off his fingertips. It’s just small things like that, where if you connect, you get momentum going and it changes [the whole game].”
Virginia’s defense, which looked shellshocked by the end of the first quarter, shifted the game’s momentum early in the second quarter. Senior Mike Moore, who plays end and strong-side linebacker, sacked Pitt quarterback Nate Peterman, forcing a fumble that popped straight into the arms of end Kwontie Moore (no relation).
A 6-2, 280-pound senior who in high school played running back when Norfolk Christian was on offense, Kwontie Moore ran 15 yards untouched to the end zone.
“It was quick and easy,” he said, smiling. “I saw the ball, and I was like, `OK, catch it, and you gotta go. You gotta run to the touchdown.’ ”
The takeaway was the Cavaliers’ first of the season. They forced a second turnover in the first minute of the fourth quarter. With Qadree Ollison on the brink of scoring his second TD, Virginia middle linebacker Micah Kiser pried the ball out of the Pitt tailback’s hands and safety Quin Blanding recovered the fumble at the 1.
“I thought that that was kind of hanging on us a little bit the past few weeks,” Bradshaw said of the takeaway storyline. “[Media members] kept asking us, `When are you guys going to get a turnover? When are you guys going to get a turnover?’
“It was nice to have the ball bounce in our favor a few times in this game.”
The defensive touchdown revived the `Hoos, who had appeared on the verge of getting blown out.
“I just kept saying, `That was the spark we needed. That was the spark we needed to get going,’ ” Severin said. “We just needed to capitalize a little bit more for the defense. They played a heck of a game.”
Pitt picked up only two first downs in the final quarter. Virginia totaled 348 yards and 16 first downs and could have many more.
In the first quarter, two plays after a 71-yard run by tailback Albert Reid, Johns dropped back to pass on second-goal from the Pitt 6. But the Panthers were in quickly on Johns, whose pass to a wide-open Reid was low and fell incomplete.
The Cavaliers, after back-to-back penalties pushed them back 10 yards, ended up settling for an Ian Frye field goal that made it 7-3.
Reid “probably would have walked in,” Johns said. “That’s just on me.”
In the second quarter, Thorpe (five receptions, 70 yards) raced behind Pitt’s secondary on a deep route, only to drop a well-thrown pass from Johns. The play would have gained at least 40 yards and put the Cavaliers in the red zone.
“That was just a straight drop,” said Thorpe, who promised he’ll be “coming in on days off and getting extra work and making sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Johns threw an interception that Pitt linebacker Matt Galambos returned 51 yards to the Virginia 20 early in the third quarter. Two plays later, the Panthers scored their final TD to take a 24-10 lead.
The Cavaliers battled back. Late in the third quarter, though, they had first-and-goal at the Pitt 10 and again came away with only a Frye field goal.
“Those are opportunities to get [seven] points, and we’ve got to capitalize on those situations,” London said.
The next opportunity to do so comes Saturday against ACC rival Syracuse at Scott Stadium.
“The W is what we’re after,” London said. “We’ve got to be obsessed with it, guys have got to want it, and we’ll continue to keep working to get that done.”
RETURN TO FORM: Frye, who came into the game having missed three straight field-goal attempts, was 2 for 2 against Pitt. Frye connected from 33 yards in the first quarter and 26 yards in the third.
“Going three weeks in a row not having made one, it’s a nice feeling getting back on the horse and getting back after it,” Frye said, “and I’m looking forward to future opportunities and helping out the team however I can.”
After the Cavaliers pulled to 26-19 on Johns’ TD pass to Severin, Pitt’s Ejuan Price capitalized on a major breakdown by Frye’s protection. Price burst through the line and blocked the extra-point attempt.
“I hit the ball really well,” Frye said. “It probably was the best strike I had the whole day. But just as soon as I hit it, I looked up and the guy was more or less already on top of me.”
The line grew even thinner when, with about eight minutes left in the third quarter, starting left tackle Michael Mooney went down with an undisclosed injury.
Mooney’s replacement was Jack English, a 6-5, 300-pound redshirt sophomore from St. Christopher’s School in Richmond.
“I looked at him his first play in,” Johns said of English, who’s primarily been used on special teams. `I said, ‘I need you. Go block and do your thing.’ He said, `I’ve got you,’ and he played great.”
THE LIST GROWS: Richard Burney, a 6-4, 235-pound tight end from Chesapeake, became the seventh true freshman to play for the `Hoos this season. Burney, a graduate of Hickory High, played on special teams Saturday.
UP NEXT: The Cavaliers are in Charlottesville for their Homecomings game. At 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Virginia hosts Syracuse (3-2, 1-0) at Scott Stadium.
The teams haven’t met since 2005, when UVA won 27-24 at the Carrier Dome on on a 19-yard field goal by Connor Hughes as time expired.
Like Virginia, Syracuse lost this weekend, falling 45-24 at South Florida.