By Jeff White (email@example.com)
PITTSBURGH — It was a confident University of Virginia football team that exited Kenan Stadium on the evening of Oct. 14, and for good reason. Earlier that day, UVA had defeated North Carolina 20-14, stretching its winning streak to four games and improving its overall record to 5-1.
Two weeks later, the Cavaliers are wobbling.
Their four-game winning streak ended Oct. 21 with a one-sided loss to Boston College at Scott Stadium. The Wahoos’ road trip to Pittsburgh went no better.
Before a smattering of fans on a wet Saturday afternoon at Heinz Field, UVA lost 31-14 to ACC rival Pitt.
For the Cavaliers, the story of the game was “missed opportunities,” head coach Bronco Mendenhall said.
“I thought we had a great chance to come in here and take a step forward as a program coming off of a difficult setback. Our practices were effective and efficient, and the mindset was good. It did not translate at a high-enough level into making plays today. We had our opportunities.”
In total offense, Virginia (5-3 overall, 2-2 ACC) outgained Pitt (4-5, 2-3), 314 yards to 310. But those totals don’t include the 75-yard punt return for a touchdown by Pitt’s Quadree Henderson midway through the second half. Nor do they reflect the Cavaliers’ inability to convert in crucial situations.
Virginia was 1 for 5 on fourth down and 6 for 17 on third down. Twice UVA was stopped for no gain on fourth-and-1, once at the Pitt 1-yard line.
“It’s very frustrating,” Virginia offensive guard John Montelus said, “because as an offensive line, we’re [seeing] fourth-and-1, third-and-short, and we’re looking for a big push. That was really frustrating, and we’ve got to come back stronger.”
The game started promisingly for Virginia. Its defense forced Pitt into a three-and-out on the game’s first series. Its offense then picked up two first downs, on runs of 11 yards (running back Daniel Hamm) and 10 yards (quarterback Kurt Benkert), and a 5-yard run by junior wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus brought up third-and-5 from the Pitt 38.
Then came what UVA offensive coordinator Robert Anae called a “rash decision” by Benkert. No. 6 threw into a crowd of Panthers, including linebacker Saleem Brightwell, who intercepted the pass.
Benkert “knew he had to make a quick decision,” Anae said, “and sometimes when quarterbacks aren’t really grooved in and they’re not in the flow of the contest, sometimes they hesitate or make a quick decision and just rip the ball. Obviously, the result of the play was not a real good one. They had only rushed three defensive linemen. They were playing huge zone, and there was really no need to just grip and rip at that point.”
The first of Pitt’s four touchdown drives followed, and Virginia, which had fallen behind 24-0 against BC, again found itself trailing early.
UVA’s first points came with 73 seconds left in the first half, on a 19-yard pass from Benkert to sophomore wideout Hasise Dubois. True freshman A.J. Mejia added the extra point, and the `Hoos went into the break down 21-7. Still, the knew they’d get the ball first in the third quarter, and another TD would make this Coastal Division clash interesting again.
“I felt good coming out of the half, and we just came up short again,” Benkert said.
The Cavaliers went three-and-out, and Pitt broke the game open with an 82-yard touchdown drive. UVA pulled to 28-14 early in the fourth quarter, on a 2-yard TD pass from Benkert to sophomore tight end Richard Burney, but could draw no closer.
In a play that typified the offense’s struggles Saturday, Zaccheaus, wide open in the end zone, dropped a pass from Benkert with 48 seconds remaining.
When something like that happens, Benkert said, “I just look at him and tell him, `Next play.’ We’ve got more football to play. I’m going to throw picks. They’re going to drop the ball. It’s going to happen. So just keep playing and play for the next play. If you just focus on everything that’s gone wrong before, you’re never going to be good.”
WHAT IT MEANS: With the toughest stretch of their schedule still to come, the Cavaliers are 5-3 overall and 2-2 in ACC play. Another win would make the `Hoos, who finished 2-10 in 2016, their first season under Mendenhall, bowl-eligible for the first time since 2011.
Four regular-season games remain for Virginia, all against ACC opponents. Two are at home (Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech) and two on the road (Louisville and Miami). Each of those opponents has a winning record, and the Hokies and the Hurricanes are nationally ranked.
TURNING POINT: It was 14-0 in the second quarter when another UVA drive stalled, and in came punter Lester Coleman. The redshirt junior’s rugby-style punt was low and gave Henderson, who caught it on one bounce, room to run.
“The kick was not where it needed to be,” Mendenhall said.
Henderson broke several tackles en route to his second spectacular touchdown against the Cavaliers. Last year at Scott Stadium, where Pitt rallied for a 45-31 win, Henderson returned a kickoff 93 yards for a score.
“Juan is a very good football player, and he’s experienced, and we use him a lot of different ways, and he’s in the special teams pool also,” Mendenhall said. “So that does have an effect.”
Virginia’s offense absorbed a major blow early in the first quarter. Starting left tackle Jack English, a graduate student, suffered an injury that sidelined him for the rest of the game. Redshirt freshman Dillon Reinkensmyer moved from center to left tackle, junior Jake Fieler from right guard to center, and sophomore R.J. Proctor took over for Fieler at right guard.
It hurts, Anae said, any “time you lose a quality fifth-year offensive lineman, but we’ve got young guys that we can plug in in that regard, and that’s the nature of the game. Jack went out early. Adjust and go forward. I thought that even with Jack getting hurt we had opportunities to put points on the board.”
GAME BALLS: Virginia had few standouts Saturday. But several `Hoos distinguished themselves, including:
* Senior safety Quin Blanding, who early in the second game broke the program record for career tackles. Blanding, who had nine stops and an interception Saturday, has 441 tackles as a Cavalier.
“It’s an amazing honor,” said Blanding, a four-year starter. “It just shows what I’ve contributed [on] the field. Wins are better, though. That’s the bottom line. Wins will always be better.”
* Sophomore Joe Reed, who had a career-long 69-yard kickoff return in the first quarter. Reed, who lines up at wideout on offense, also rushed four times for 14 yards Saturday and had one reception (for 4 yards).
* Dubois, whose TD reception was his first as a Cavalier. He finished with two receptions for 26 yards.
* Senior defensive end Andrew Brown, who had a game-high three tackles for loss. They included a sack for a 10-yard loss.
THEY SAID IT: Mendenhall, Anae, Benkert, Blanding, Montelus, Brown and linebacker Chris Peace were available for interviews after the game. Among their comments:
* Blanding on whether the Cavaliers’ confidence level is dropping: “No. I will not allow that on this team. As a leader on this team I’m not going to allow that attitude or that mindset to creep in. I’m just going to keep my guys going and I’m going to keep bringing the energy for them and let them know we’re changing this program and we’re going to change it this year.”
* Mendenhall: “For the program to take another step, our execution has to hold more frequently and more consistently week in and week out, and situation in and situation out. And if confidence wanes, then sometimes that becomes difficult to break out of those situations and take over the game the way we need to. No matter what happens, execution wins the day.”
* Anae: “Sometimes a year ago in this same spot, we’d [face adversity] and there was almost a despair. I don’t feel it. I don’t sense it. I think our guys are resilient. It may not be showing just yet, but we’re not done with the season.”
* Peace on the Cavaliers’ two-game losing streak: “It’s been disappointing, but we can’t keep dwelling on it. We just gotta pick up where we left off and get back to executing the way we were.”
WHAT’S NEXT? The ‘Hoos have two home games left, the first of which comes next Saturday. At 3 p.m., UVA plays Coastal Division rival Georgia Tech at Scott Stadium.
Heading into its game at Clemson tonight, Georgia Tech was 4-2 overall and 3-1 in ACC play.
UVA has lost four of its past five games with the Yellow Jackets, who run the triple-option offense that’s the trademark of head coach Paul Johnson.
The Cavaliers’ most recent victory in the series came in 2015, when they won 27-21 in Charlottesville.
Asked about the challenge of preparing for the Jackets’ offense in one week, Mendenhall said, “There’s none higher, but that’s OK. I like doing hard things, and I like my team. I love my team, and we’ll take on the next challenge the best we can.”