Cavaliers aim for 6th win, bowl eligibility against Pitt
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall saw during a blowout loss to Boston College last week that his team still had some growing up to do.
When he closed the locker room door for what was sure to be a blunt assessment, Mendenhall found the Cavaliers around senior safety Quin Blanding. Hoping to reach a bowl game for the first time in his collegiate career, Blanding sent a message that a 31-point loss at home can’t be tolerated.
“I didn’t have to say a thing,” Mendenhall said. “Quin said it best and said it more appropriately than I could, and he claimed ownership of not only the outcome but setting direction and going forward, which is pretty impressive.”
Next up, a chance to see if the pep talk worked. The Cavaliers (5-2, 2-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) visit Pittsburgh (3-5, 1-3) on Saturday looking to reach the six-win plateau for the first time since 2011.
The Panthers are coming off a 24-17 victory at Duke , a game in which they responded to a challenge from offensive tackle Brian O’Neill to get back to basics by using a running game that finally shook off weeks of malaise.
“Basically (O’Neill) was just tired of us not being able to run the ball,” said running back Darrin Hall, who posted a career-high 254 yards while scoring all three Pitt touchdowns. “He put it on us to impact this game and don’t rely on the pass, rely on us, do our job to make the game easier for us.”
The Panthers haven’t missed a bowl game in a decade but are running out of wiggle room. Beating the Cavaliers for the fourth time in five meetings since joining the ACC would help. Coach Pat Narduzzi isn’t one to get into big-picture thinking. Too dangerous.
“It’s not anything we talk about, because we start looking ahead, particularly with a young football team, you’ll get whacked,” Narduzzi said. “We’re not worried about that. We’re just worried about winning the next one.”
Some things to look for as the Panthers and Cavaliers attempt to build momentum ahead of tough games in November. Both schools will face No. 8 Miami and No. 13 Virginia Tech.
MISSING MADDOX: Pitt cornerback Avonte Maddox’s 44th game with the Panthers might have been his last. The senior injured his right forearm while breaking up a pass last week against Duke and is out indefinitely. Dane Jackson, a bright spot for the secondary, takes over Maddox’s spot as the top corner. Phillipie Motley will likely step in for Maddox. Motley made two starts last season but has played primarily on special teams this season.
“He’s had a great week of practice,” Narduzzi said of Motley. “He needs to have a great Saturday.”
BOTTLE ’EM UP: Virginia won five of its first six by limiting big plays. Then Boston College scored a pair of 76-yard touchdowns on consecutive snaps to blow it open early. Pitt’s sleepy offense woke up against Duke thanks in large part to touchdown sprints of 92 yards and 79 yards by Hall. In a league with wildly disparate offenses, the Panthers and the Eagles are alarmingly similar. Facing them back-to-back should help the Cavaliers.
“There’s different motions and shifts and different things like that, a lot which we saw a week ago,” Mendenhall said. “So after not having really seen any of those sets until last week, it’s nice now to have a foundational approach to be able to build off of.”
JUDGING JESTER: Perhaps no player on Pitt’s offense has been affected by the carousel at quarterback than senior wide receiver Jester Weah. Expected to be Pitt’s main big-play threat this season, Weah’s effectiveness has been erratic at best, though things may be turning around. The 6-foot-3 speedster is averaging 16.9 yards per catch over Pitt’s last three games. His leaping grab at the Duke 5 set up the go-ahead touchdown.
“Jester’s had a pretty solid year,” Narduzzi said. “They’re always playing a guy over top of him with a guy underneath him. So he’s getting a lot of double-coverage there, but we’re still able to get it up to him.”
SLIPPERY WHEN WET: The forecast is for showers throughout the day and temperatures in the 50s. Holding onto the ball could be a challenge. Both defenses have been opportunistic. Pitt is tied for second in takeaways with 13. The Cavaliers have 10. Both teams are plus-3 in turnover differential.
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