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By Jeff White (
PITTSBURGH –– Amid the jubilant scene in the visitors’ locker room at Heinz Field, the roar subsided for a moment so University of Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall could address his football team.
“You earned that,” Mendenhall told his players. “There was nothing easy about it.”
For the Cavaliers, that made their season-opening win all the more gratifying. This is Mendenhall’s fourth year at UVA, and his record against Pittsburgh was 0-3 before Saturday night. Moreover, in each of those three games Pitt had pushed around his team. 
Not this time.
“We showed them at their home that we’re a team to be reckoned with in the ACC,” junior safety Joey Blount said after Virginia rallied to defeat the reigning Coastal Division champions Panthers 30-14 before a crowd of 47,144 at the Steelers’ stadium.
The victory was the Wahoos’ first in this city.
“It’s a significant win for the program,” Mendenhall said.
The Cavaliers, who led 10-0 after one quarter, trailed 14-13 at halftime, and Pitt had all the momentum when the teams headed to their locker rooms. But Virginia regained the lead on the first possession of the third quarter and asserted its physical dominance as the night went on.
For the game, the Hoos sacked Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett four times and forced two turnovers. Three of those sacks and both turnovers came in the second half. 
“The offense has to clean up a [few] things,” UVA wide receiver Hasise Dubois said, “but the defense balled out today, especially Joey Blount.”

Blount, whose father, Tony, was an All-ACC safety for the Cavaliers, finished with seven tackles, including his first two career sacks, and had a fourth-quarter interception.

“He was all over the field,” said Kelly Poppinga, UVA’s co-defensive coordinator.

Traditionally a running team under head coach Pat Narduzzi, the Panthers have a new offensive coordinator, Mark Whipple, and were determined to show more balance in their attack than in recent years. That was fine with Virginia.

“Honestly, they went away from the run game, which was really surprising for us,” Poppinga said. “We felt like we had some good pressures that were going to hit home, and we hit the quarterback a lot. Really, that’s what happened. We covered better, hit the quarterback a lot, made him feel uncomfortable, and at end of the day that’s what got us the W.”

Narduzzi said: “We’ve got to learn how to pick that stuff up. Kenny took some hits today. We can’t let our quarterback take hits like that.”
Virginia’s quarterback, senior Bryce Perkins, has had more spectacular performances, but as the senior-less line in front of him grew more effective in the second half, so did he. Perkins had a 27-yard run on the first possession of the third quarter, and he finished 20-of-34 passing for 181 yards and two touchdowns. He wasn’t intercepted.

“I think it’s all just part of getting to know this team, and kind of getting back in the swing of it for him,” Mendenhall said. “He looked more rhythmic, more confident, more poised [in the second half]. But also we were able to now just dial in and call things that were maybe more suitable for what the game was requiring versus this opponent.”

On their final possession of the first half, the Panthers drove 80 yards for a touchdown, and their no-huddle offense had UVA off-balance.

“The speed in which they were going, with the formations they were giving us, made it really difficult,” Mendenhall said. “It was very difficult to identify what personnel they were in, and then the formations were unique, and we were just a count off of making the adjustments by alignment we needed to before the ball was snapped.”

At halftime, Mendenhall said, he saw some uncertainty from his players, but also resolve and maturity. The coaches stressed the need for UVA to become more physical, and “the O-line came out with a different mindset and just did a great job,” Perkins said. “I think we as a team rallied behind each other and really picked each other up.”

Mendenhall said: “The program just looks more seasoned. There weren’t the wild ups and wild downs and crazy miscues and things where you’d say, ‘Why did he do that?’ Or ‘Holy cow, did he just do that?’

“I still wasn’t sure going into the game how we’d play, but overall the relative clean nature of how we played the game, and then coming back from a deficit, and then finishing with running the ball in the end zone when we had to, to run out the clock, that was refreshing, and the best teams can do that, so that was a good sign.”

HAPPY HOMECOMING: Junior linebacker Zane Zandier, who starred at nearby Thomas Jefferson High School, led Virginia with nine tackles, to the delight of his large cheering section of family and friends.

“This one’s been marked on the calendar for a while,” Zandier said. “It’s a lot of fun. We had a lot of fun out there today, and I think we played really hard.”

Zandier played with a cast covering his right hand and thumb, but the injury didn’t seem to bother him.

“I didn’t really notice it that much,” he said.

In Virginia’s 3-4 defense, Zandier started alongside senior Jordan Mack, one of the team’s captains, at inside linebacker. Mack left the game after colliding with teammate Noah Taylor late in the second quarter and didn’t return.

Mendenhall said Mack appeared to have suffered a concussion. In Mack’s absence, junior Rob Snyder played extensively and finished with three tackles.

MOMENTUM SHIFT: In 2018, Matt Gahm backed up Chris Peace, now a rookie with the Los Angeles Chargers, at outside linebacker. Gahm, a junior from the Dallas area, made his first college start Saturday night and turned in one of the game’s most important plays.

With Virginia leading 16-14 early in the third quarter, Gahm intercepted a Pickett pass at the Pitt 29. Five plays later, Perkins passed to Dubois for an 8-yard touchdown.

“We’ve been here three years with that same defense, and I don’t think we’ve ever had an outside ‘backer drop appropriately yet,” Mendenhall said, smiling. “So finally in year four we get it done at the appropriate time by a really diligent guy. It’ll be a monumental thing for teaching now. When they do it right, it actually works.

“That’s Matt’s first start, and there’s plenty to learn, but to execute a play like that in a critical moment, on the road, in the first start, I was really proud of him.”

So was Gahm’s roommate.

“Nobody better to get that pick,” Zandier said. “It was awesome.”

GAME BALLS: After every UVA victory, a player is selected to break a ceremonial rock with a sledgehammer. Saturday night, that honor went to Blount.
“I’m speechless, honestly,” he said. “It’s kind of emotional, because there were a lot of players that could have been deemed worthy of breaking the rock … I think it was an all-around great thing for the defense, and I wanted to share that with the defense, not just me personally.”

Other standouts:

• Kicker Brian Delaney, a junior who was 3 for 4 on field goals. He connected from 39, 36 and 45 yards. His lone miss, from 40 yards, came with 4:23 left in the fourth quarter.

• Running back Wayne Taulapapa, who played exclusively on special teams as a true freshman in 2018. In his first college start, Taulapapa rushed 10 times for a game-high 66 yards and one touchdown Saturday night.

“It was a great feeling,” said Taulapapa, a native of Hawaii. “Coming from special teams, it’s a big changeup, but football’s football. So I was really excited to be able to help out the team in the way that I could, and tonight was a good opportunity for me.”

• Nash Griffin, a junior who in his first start at punter averaged 45.5 yards on his four kicks. Griffin also holds on extra points and field goals.

• Running back Chris Sharp, a fifth-year senior who made the most of his limited playing time. With 6:11 left in the first quarter, Sharp came off the bench to catch a 2-yard touchdown pass from Bryce Perkins.
• Center Olusegun Oluwatimi, a redshirt sophomore who sat out last season after transferring from Air Force to UVA. Oluwatimi’s first start came in his first college debut.
“He had to get used to the game at first,” Dubois said, “and once he got used to it and acclimated, everything clicked.”
Oluwatimi said: “I was loose going in. I wasn’t really too tense.”
THEY SAID IT: The victory was the Cavaliers’ first over the Panthers since 2014. Among the notable comments afterward:

• Taulapapa: “The physicality of Pitt and the way they play is phenomenal. To be able to beat them really says that our program is moving in the right direction.”

• Mendenhall: “Our offensive line clearly played better in the second half. That had a lot to do with, I think, our ability to have control of the game at the end.”

• Mendenhall’s on the line’s progress:”We’re still working hard to find the best five, the most complementary five, and the right players to do the right thing at the right time. And the way we performed the second half, I was much more pleased with that than the first half, where it seemed not nearly as consistent and more sporadic.”

• Poppinga on Gahm: “He’s not the flashy guy, but he’s the guy that does all the dirty work. He’s a big, physical guy that loves to hit, and I look forward to seeing how he progresses through the year.”

• Zandier on Virginia’s pass rush: “I think we did a pretty good job getting to the quarterback tonight. I have to tip my hat to [Pickett]. He took a lot of hits tonight, and I think he was really tough in there, and I think he’s a good quarterback.”
• Poppinga on Pickett’s effectiveness running out of the pocket: “We gotta fix that going into next week.”

SHORT-HANDED: Virginia played without three of its most gifted wide receivers: sophomores Billy Kemp IV and Tavares Kelly Jr. and graduate transfer Dejon Brissett. All three should be available next weekend.
Kemp and Kelly were suspended for violating team rules, but “they’re back in good standing,” Mendenhall said. “They worked really hard [in practice] helping us to prepare for this. They were basically Pitt’s receivers, which was great preparation. Brissett should also be back full speed. His was injury-related, not contact-related.”
FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS: Next up for Virginia is its home opener. At 8 p.m. Friday, in a non-conference game the new ACC Network will air, UVA (1-0) takes on William & Mary (1-0) at Scott Stadium.
This is the first of three Friday games this season for Virginia, which plays at Miami on Oct. 11 and hosts another ACC rival, Virginia Tech, on Nov. 29.
William & Mary, an FBS program, opened the season at home Saturday with a 30-17 win over Lafayette.
The Tribe is in its first season under Mike London, Mendenhall’s predecessor as UVA’s head coach. London’s staff includes six former Virginia players: Matt Johns, Ras-I Dowling, Josh Zidenberg, Keenan Carter, Gordie Sammis and Darryl Blackstock. Moreover, the Tribe’s associate head coach, Vincent Brown, is a former UVA assistant.
Virginia has won three straight over William & Mary and leads the series 29-6-1.