By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – Lineman Mandy Alonso and safety Joey Blount each left Scott Stadium on crutches. Safety Juan Thornhill wore a protective boot on his left foot. Yet another mainstay of Virginia’s defense, safety Brenton Nelson, was hobbling, too.
On a disappointing night for the Cavaliers, who gave up their lead in the ACC’s Coastal Division, they suffered additional hardship in the form of injuries to several defensive mainstays. Nelson limped his way through the game, but Alonso, Blount and Thornhill were spectators by the start of the fourth quarter.
“That’s a lot of production that went off the field for us defensively,” head coach Bronco Mendenhall said late Friday night after UVA’s 23-13 to Pittsburgh.
The Cavaliers, No. 25 in the College Football Playoff rankings, had many other issues, and Mendenhall acknowledged as much in his postgame press conference.
“My job and my staff’s job is to anticipate circumstances and anticipate really every possible scenario and then prepare our players to effectively be able to manage them,” Mendenhall said. “The players play as they’re prepared. Somehow, someway, we didn’t get through to them.”
The Wahoos (6-3, 4-2) were penalized 10 times, a season high, for 80 yards. Virginia’s offense had the benefit of a full complement of players, but that group struggled too. The Cavaliers finished with a season-low 44 yards rushing, in part because Pitt sacked junior quarterback Bryce Perkins for 46 yards in losses.
“We never did find rhythm offensively, from beginning to end,” Mendenhall said.
Pitt (5-4, 4-1), meanwhile, dominated up front on both sides of the ball. Not only did the Panthers’ defense pressure Perkins and shut down UVA’s running game, their offense totaled 254 yards on the ground.
“It’s very tough to lose the way we did and to lose at home,” Virginia sophomore linebacker Charles Snowden said. “It hurts a lot.”
Senior tailback Darrin Hall carried 19 times for 229 yards and had touchdown runs of 41, 2 and 75 yards for Pitt, which has won four straight over UVA.
“It was the first thing that I mentioned to our team when we got ready to play Pitt,” Mendenhall said. “The first thing I mentioned was the physical nature of the game and what that would be like, knowing that that would be, I think, the determining factor of whether we had a chance to win.”
For all of the Cavaliers’ problems in a game that started with torrential rain pummeling the stadium, they went into halftime leading 10-7. Perkins passed to sophomore wide receiver Terrell Jana for a 42-yard touchdown with 5:54 left in the first quarter, and sophomore Brian Delaney kicked a 29-yard field goal with two seconds left in the second.
In the second half, the Cavaliers gained only 56 yards, to 194 for Pitt.
“We wanted to be the more physical team,” UVA running Jordan Ellis said. “We knew they were going to be a physical team from the jump from watching their film, and we didn’t get it done. It was definitely disappointing.”
Perkins completed 17 of 24 passes for 205 yards, with one touchdown and no interceptions, but his decision-making hurt UVA on several plays. He’s a wondrous athlete who has consistently eluded defenders all season, but Perkins rarely succeeded when he tried to extend pass plays against the well-schooled Panthers.
With the score 20-13 midway through the fourth quarter, Perkins was sacked for a 9-yard loss. Then, after a Pitt drive that ended with Alex Kesssman’s 53-yard field goal, Perkins was sacked for a 16-yard loss on third-and-1. One play later, the Cavaliers turned the ball over on downs.
“Those two long sacks were definitely on me,” Perkins said. “I’ve got to be more critical, especially in the tight situations in the fourth quarter. I can’t take that sack. I’ve got to be smarter.”
Perkins enrolled at UVA in January after starring last fall for Arizona Western College.
“Every play and every game is a learning experience for Bryce,” Mendenhall said, “and as this season continues to move forward, and as we become more and more successful, that continues to create new circumstances.”
From this game, Mendenhall said, “there’s plenty to learn.”
Perkins’ mobility has “been one of the things that’s allowed us to move the chains, when he’s doing things and creating kind of outside the system,” Mendenhall said. “And so what we learned today is that alone won’t be enough, and you have to be able to execute just core offense and defense, as the baseline, and then the improvisation, that can be added afterwards, not as the primary.”
If there was a turning point in the game, it might have been a UVA penalty near the midpoint of the third quarter. With Virginia leading 13-10, Pitt faced third-and-11 from its 15-yard line. The Cavaliers forced Kenny Pickett out of the pocket and stopped him well short of a first down, but sophomore linebacker Elliott Brown was called for a horse-collar infraction on his tackle of Pitt’s quarterback.
That personal foul extended a drive that ended with Hall’s second TD run, which made it 14-10 with 21 seconds left in the third quarter.
“I argued against it,” Mendenhall said of the call on Brown, “and that’s all I can really say.”
TRADING PLACES: Redshirt sophomore Robert Snyder, who moved into the starting lineup after junior Jordan Mack suffered a shoulder injury Sept. 22 against Louisville, missed the Pitt game for medical reasons. But Mack returned after missing four games.
“It felt good to get back out there with my guys and be able to help them out,” Mack said.
He was credited with six tackles Friday night, but Mack gave his performance a poor grade.
“Personally, I did not play up to my personal standard today, so I need to go back in the film room, look at it, assess it and come back better next week,” he said.
STANDOUTS: The home fans had little to cheer Friday night, but several UVA players had memorable moments. They included:
* Senior Lester Coleman, who averaged 44.8 yards on his four punts. Pitt has no yards on punt returns.
* Delaney, who was 2 for 2 on field goals, connecting from 29 and 42 yards. For the season, he’s 8 for 10.
* Sophomore linebacker Matt Gahm, who teamed with Alonso and sacked Pickett for a 10-yard loss in the first quarter.
* Jana, who caught three passes for 71 yards – both career highs – and scored his first touchdown as a Cavalier.
“It was an amazing feeling,” said Jana, a graduate of nearby Woodberry Forest.
Coming into the game, Jana had caught only three passes this season. On his TD reception Friday night, he split out wide right, near the Pitt sideline, and drew a matchup Perkins liked.
“We knew it was going to come, that look, and Bryce saw me and trusted me. Then I just made the play,” Jana said. “I’ve been working as hard as I can since spring ball. My focus is on being a more reliable option for the quarterback, the coaches and the team in general. I’m getting opportunities to grow. Luckily today, Bryce had confidence in me, and it was great.”
THEY SAID IT: Mendenhall and several players took questions from media members after the game. Among their comments:
* Perkins on the Cavaliers’ performance: “It felt slow. It felt like we were slow and lethargic out there, just bouncing around methodically. We’ve got to have more passion about how we play and more pride about scoring points and more pride about hitting our people, which we didn’t do.”
* Mendenhall on his team’s preparation for the game: “I thought we had a really solid model for a Friday night game. I thought we were on point from everything that I saw. And so certainly [this is a] learning opportunity for me to examine and see if I can retrace and see where it might have happened.
“The volume of miscues, mostly concentration-wise, that’s the thing that’s kind of frustrating me most, besides the execution that came after that. So there’s a lot to analyze and then digest.”
SENIOR DAY: Virginia’s three-game homestand concludes next Saturday at 3 p.m. against Liberty (4-3).
The first-ever meeting between these schools in football will be televised by NBC Sports Washington in the Mid-Atlantic region.
Virginia’s seniors will be honored in a pregame ceremony at Scott Stadium.
The Cavaliers close the regular season with two road games: Nov. 17 against Georgia Tech in Atlanta and Nov. 23 against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.
“We’re just focusing on finishing this season off the right way,” Ellis said. “We have a great group of guys. We will take this, learn from [the Pitt loss] and move onto the next one.”
His final appearance at Scott Stadium is coming up, Ellis said, and he’s “just trying to focus on going out with a bang. Just leave it all out there, and everything else will take care of itself.”