Oct. 15, 2016
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Six games remain on the University of Virginia football team’s regular-season schedule. The combined record of those six ACC opponents – each of which is above .500 – is 27-12.
With an opportunity to head into that arduous stretch on a three-game winning streak, the Cavaliers faltered Saturday on Homecomings at Scott Stadium. Virginia gained 270 yards and scored 28 points in the first half, only to see ACC rival Pittsburgh rally for a 45-31 victory on a splendid fall afternoon.
“I give credit to Pitt,” UVA running back Taquan Mizzell said. “We came out hot in the first half. We just couldn’t keep up the momentum.”
The Panthers (5-2 ACC, 2-1) scored six touchdowns in this Coastal Division game. Their offense accounted for four of them. The others came on a 93-yard kickoff return and a 59-yard interception return, respectively, both in the first half.
Another long kickoff return by the Panthers – this one for 69 yards – set up the TD that tied the game at 28-28 with 40 seconds left in the first half.
“You can wear yourself out second-guessing what play at what time, or what defense at what time,” UVA head coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “Really this was a game of a few special-teams plays and an interception return for a touchdown. If you take all of the whole thing and just shake it out, there’s about three plays that come out that make the difference, in my opinion.”
The game’s only turnover shifted momentum in Pitt’s direction for good. It came in the waning seconds of the opening half.
After a 12-yard run by Mizzell gave Virginia (2-4, 1-1) a first down at its 44-yard line, Mendenhall and offensive coordinator Robert Anae opted not to play it safe.
“In retrospect, yeah, you probably do it different,” Mendenhall said. “But it was thought out, and it was a conscious decision to do that.”
Anae said: “Obviously we wish we would have just taken a knee and gotten out of there. That would have been better than what we did. After [Mizzell’s run], I made the call to push the envelope.”
UVA quarterback Kurt Benkert spiked the ball to stop the clock, and then threw an incompletion with 18 seconds left in the first half. A receiver had been wide open downfield on that play, however, and Anae came back with the same call.
“It completely backfired,” he said.
On third-and-10, Benkert dropped back and threw over the middle. His target was wide receiver Keeon Johnson, but the pass was underthrown. Safety Jordan Whitehead reached up to snare the ball, took off running and didn’t stop until he reached the end zone with four seconds to play in the half.
“I just made a bad throw,” Benkert said, “and obviously I had a turnover that they turned into points.”
And so Pitt, which had trailed 28-21 less than a minute earlier, went into the break leading 35-28 despite having only 160 yards of total offense.
Benkert, who completed 13 of 24 yards for 185 yards and one TD in the first half, never found his rhythm again. He finished 20-for-45 passing for 278 yards and one TD, with the costly interception.
“I’m not sure to what extent [the turnover] had an effect on him,” Mendenhall said, “but what a momentum shift, because we’re going and all of the sudden think we might be able to get some more points on the board. And then it flips. However, we want our quarterback to be aggressive, and we want him to have confidence and we promote that. And so I’m not going to put all of the outcome of the game on that one play. It certainly was a big play and it certainly was a momentum-shifter, but that’s part of college football.”
UVA safety Quin Blanding agreed. The pick-six hurt, but that’s “football,” he said. “That’s the game. Things happen, but we gotta move forward, that’s the bottom line.”
Virginia’s defense stiffened in the second half, but its offense sputtered. The Cavaliers netted only 15 yards in the third quarter and finished the game with 378.
The Panthers recorded three sacks Saturday, all in the second half.
“They didn’t do anything really different than we expected in the second half,” Benkert said. “They just brought a lot more pressure, so I didn’t have as much time to just sit back there and take shots down the field.”
Pass protection was not the only area in which UVA’s offensive line struggled in the second half. With the score 35-28 late in the third quarter, a 9-yard completion from Benkert to Mizzell set up second-and-1 from the Virginia 43. After a Benkert incompletion, Pitt stopped Albert Reid’s third-down run for no gain, forcing a punt.
“It should have been a routine short-yardage play [on third down],” Anae said, “but our guys up front just weren’t targeted well. They did a couple of things that are uncharacteristic for their group. So we didn’t convert, and we felt it was too close of a game right at that point to go for it on fourth.”
In the first half, the Wahoos converted such plays, Anae said. “In the second half we got out of our game plan and guys started doing things non-characteristic of what they are trained to do. A little bit of playing backyard football, so to speak, instead of sticking with your task and doing your job and your assignment.”
Penalties also hurt the ‘Hoos. They were flagged 10 times for 81 yards, and several of their penalties extended drives that would end with Pitt touchdowns.
“I thought we tried hard,” Mendenhall said. “I thought we showed a lot of spirit. There’s a lot of things that I liked. Offensively we look more and more explosive. We didn’t sustain it in the second half, but we certainly did in the first, and I think defensively we gave up three [significant] drives, and that in and of itself against that team is, I think, a solid performance.
“With those, though, penalties kept them going. So we have a lot to learn, a lot to grow from. I was certainly anticipating and believed it could have been a different result, but [the Panthers] executed better today than we did, and that’s reflective of how they were prepared.”
In their first game since an Oct. 1 win at Duke – a victory that snapped their 17-game road losing streak – Virginia had no takeaways and failed to sack Pitt quarterback Nathan Peterman. The Cavaliers did not record their first tackle for loss Saturday until nearly five minutes had elapsed in the final quarter.
Still, Mendenhall said, his defense “made it hard for Pitt to score. There were three sustained drives, and we contributed, I think, with a penalty on each one. And so my job is now to help the defensive kids learn to play aggressive and hard and clean.”
Mizzell, a senior, rushed 12 times for a game-high 95 yards and one touchdown. That came on a 44-yard gain late in the first quarter, thanks in part to a textbook block from redshirt freshman tight end Richard Burney.
Sam Hayward added the extra point, and Virginia led 14-7. The lead was short-lived. Moments later, Pitt’s Quadree Henderson returned Dylan Sims’ short kickoff 93 yards for a TD.
Henderson ran back a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown in the Panthers’ season-opening win over Villanova.
“Pitt’s returner is very, very good,” Mendenhall said. “We knew that going into the game, and the returns that they ran were the same returns that we prepared for. And so clearly their staff did a better job of executing and having their young men execute and coach them in those situations than we did.”
Anae said: “The inconsistency is where we are right now as a group. We’re certainly capable. There’s nothing out there today that tells me we are not capable of winning in this conference. We are capable this year of winning in the conference.”
For now, however, the Cavaliers “are not capable of being consistent when the game’s on the line,” Anae said. “When an opponent’s tough, we haven’t shown that we can be consistent in a tough stretch.”
When the ‘Hoos return to practice Monday, they’ll renew their effors to change that.
“We know what we’re capable of doing,” offensive tackle Eric Smith said. “We’ve shown that, if we can just be consistent. That’s our goal for this week, consistency.”
NOTHING DOING: Sophomore wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus teamed with Benkert on a 74-yard touchdown pass late in the first half and finished the half with three receptions for 83 yards and the one TD.
Zaccheaus didn’t touch the ball in the second half.
“We had a couple of really nice [plays], some more big shots dialed up for him in the game plan, and we just couldn’t get it to him,” Anae said. “For those things to be successful, you’ve got to set it up. And we did not cross the 50 [consistently], we did not covert on third [down], we did not sustain drives to put ourselves in those spots.
“In the first half, there were more sustained drives. We got in a really good rhythm in that second quarter. That’s kind of like it’s been all year. Sometimes you have a great quarter and then an awful one. Our job now is to see if we can match these things up through the course of a game and get consistency out of our team. That’s the goal.”
UP NEXT: In the second of its three straight home games, Virginia (2-4, 1-1) meets Coastal Division foe North Carolina (5-2, 3-1) at 3 p.m. Saturday at Scott Stadium.
This will be the 121st installment of what’s known as the South’s oldest rivalry. The Tar Heels have won six straight over the Cavaliers and lead the series 62-54-4.
On the road today, UNC upset No. 16 Miami 20-13.
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A 1985 graduate of UVA, White worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch until July 2009. He was honored six times as the state's Sportswriter of the Year.
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