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First career TD for Malachi Fields gets us on the board!
— Virginia Football (@UVAFootball) November 12, 2022
By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — A football game that started in disastrous fashion for the Virginia Cavaliers never got much better for the home team.
The Pitt Panthers intercepted UVA quarterback Brennan Armstrong’s first two passes Saturday afternoon and returned each one for a touchdown. Sixteen seconds into this Coastal Division game, the Cavaliers trailed 14-0, and they never recovered in a 37-7 loss at Scott Stadium.
“What I saw is, I gotta do a better job of coaching Brennan in those situations to help him be able to process that,” UVA head coach Tony Elliott said.
The defeat was the third straight for Virginia (3-7 overall, 1-6 ACC), which is in its first season under Elliott. The Wahoos have two games remaining.
“You start off down 14, and their offense hasn’t touched the field,” UVA offensive coordinator Des Kitchings said. “That’s obviously not a great recipe to start the game off.”
Virginia’s defense gave up only two touchdowns Saturday, but both came in the first quarter, after which Pitt (6-4, 3-3) held a commanding 28-0 lead. That tied the program record for most points allowed by UVA in a first quarter.
“Obviously, we have a higher standard for us in that locker room,” defensive coordinator John Rudzinski said, “and I know that the coaches and staff have a higher standard than that for an opening first quarter.”
For the second straight game, UVA played without its three most productive wide receivers—Lavel Davis Jr., Keytaon Thompson and Dontayvion Wicks—each of whom is dealing with a medical issue. Against a swarming Pitt defense, Virginia totaled only 144 yards, and Armstrong was sacked eight times for 69 yards in losses.
UVA’s leading rusher, with 23 yards on eight carries, was junior tailback Mike Hollins. The Cavaliers’ offensive line struggled throughout to open holes.
“It was just unfortunate we couldn’t get anything going in the run game,” Kitchings said.
The Panthers pride themselves on their physicality and toughness, and “they did a good job,” Elliott said. “They showed up with the with the right mindset and ready to play, and I didn’t do a good job of having the guys with the right mindset, understanding the matchup that we had, the physicality that it was going to take, the intensity and enthusiasm that we [needed to] start the game with. So it’s not on the players. It’s on me to make sure that I am fully articulated and have them prepared to be able to play in a game like this.”
Not since the Cavaliers’ 2015 loss to Boise State had an opponent returned two interceptions for touchdowns against them.
“I think it made Armstrong think a little bit, at least for the first half and maybe even the third quarter,” Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi said. “Then he started to get hot and throwing some good balls. But, again, great performance, and that’s how you start fast on defense.”
Virginia had little to celebrate Saturday other than the return of wide receiver Malachi Fields. A sophomore who starred at nearby Monticello High School, Fields missed UVA’s first nine games while recovering from a foot injury he suffered in training camp.
Against Pitt, he caught a career-high five passes for 58 yards and his first TD as a Cavalier. Late in the third quarter, the 6-foot-4, 214-pound Fields ran a fade pattern and leaped in the end zone to catch a 9-yard pass from Armstrong.
“It was really exciting,” Fields said. “My boys were right there. They were happy for me and happy to see me out there. I could not do it without them pushing me every day.”
The Cavaliers are thrilled to have Fields back. “Credit to him,” Kitchings said. “He’s attacked his rehab and got himself into a position to be able to help us play these last couple of weeks. So I’m excited for him and his future.
Pitt tailback Israel Abanikanda carried 24 ties for 121 yards and one touchdown. The Panthers, who didn’t turn the ball over, totaled 397 yards on offense, and they would have had more if not for UVA cornerbacks Fentrell Cypress II and Anthony Johnson, who combined for three pass breakups, all on deep balls.
“Those two young men have competed their butt off all season,” Rudzinski said.
SENIOR DAY: Virginia’s home finale is next Saturday. At 3:30 p.m., the Cavaliers take on Coastal Carolina in a non-conference matchup that concludes their four-game homestand. Armstrong and UVA’s other seniors will be recognized in a ceremony before the game.
This will be the first time these schools have met in football. Coastal was 8-1 heading into its game with Southern Mississippi on Saturday night.
Led by quarterback Grayson McCall, who twice has been named Sun Belt Conference player of the year, the Chanticleers finished 11-2 last season. McCall is back this year, but he injured his foot last weekend against Appalachian State and will miss the game in Charlottesville.
Coastal’s only loss this season was to Old Dominion, which romped 49-21 on Oct. 15 in Conway, S.C. Virginia rallied to defeat ODU 16-14 at Scott Stadium in September.
UVA closes the season Nov. 26 against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.
SOUND BITES: The loss was UVA’s sixth in its past seven meetings with Pitt. Among the postgame comments:
* Kitchings: “We’ve got a group of kids, and they’re hurting. The coaches are hurting, too, because we’d been making progress and today just took a step back with the start of that game.”
* Elliott on the perseverance of UVA’s defense: “There’s gonna be some positives, but for me, it’s a lot of ownership and evaluation of making sure that I do everything that I’m supposed to do as the head coach to have the coaching staff and the players ready to go.”
* Elliott: “I came here with a vision in mind, a goal in mind, and it may not be going exactly how I planned it to be, but I’m not gonna lose hope, I’m not gonna lose focus, I’m not gonna tuck my tail. If you back me in a corner, I’m going to turn and I’m gonna fight. That’s all I’ve ever done my entire life, and I’m going to be accountable for things that I got to change.”
* Fields on falling behind 14-0 so quickly: “It does not feel great, but I told the guys to stay in it and think about the next play. You can’t think about the past in football. You have to move on.”
* Linebacker Nick Jackson on the mood in the Cavaliers’ locker room: “Just next-play mentality. That’s all it is. Next game, next opportunity, and we’ve still got more opportunities to play more football … Let’s keep that positive mindset and let everyone know that we have more opportunities.”
* UVA safety Coen King: “We’re supposed to have the same mindset all the way through, but it’s tough to get started like that. You can kind of see it on the faces of a lot of guys, but we definitely didn’t lose any hope even though they got out fast. It’s just natural to be kind of bummed out that they started that fast.”