Thursday, September 26, 2013

game preview: Pittsburgh

Date/Time: Saturday, September 28; 12:30


Record against the Panthers: 2-3

Last meeting: UVA 44, Pitt 14; 9/29/07, Charlottesville

Last weekend: UVA 49, VMI 0; Pitt 58, Duke 55

Line: Pitt by 5

Injury report:


OUT - G George Adeosun, G Conner Davis, G Jack McDonald, TE Mario Nixon, TE Zach Swanson, SS Wilfred Wahee


QUESTIONABLE - RB Taquan Mizzell

PROBABLE - WR Miles Gooch, RB Khalek Shepherd

OUT - DB Cullen Christian, DE Devin Cook, OL Gabe Roberts

DOUBTFUL - DE Bryan Murphy



Time to get the ACC schedule underway.  It's Pitt's first season in the conference, but the opponent isn't totally unfamiliar; these teams have met three times in the past decade or so.  Matt Schaub led the Hoos to a win in what remains the only UVA bowl game I've seen in person, and UVA and Pitt played a home-and-home a few years later in which the teams traded crowd-pleasing blowouts.  This promises to be an interesting series in years to come, since both teams would love to establish a strong presence on each others' home recruiting turf.  For this season, though, it's two teams that could make a bowl game but face an uphill battle to do so - the winner will be halfway to their goal.

-- UVA run offense vs. Pitt run defense

Top backs:
Kevin Parks: 56 carries, 260 yards, 4.6 ypc, 3 TD
Daniel Hamm: 21 carries, 136 yards, 6.5 ypc, 2 TD

UVA offense:
196.67 yards/game, 4.10 yards/attempt
82nd of 125 (national), 10th of 14 (ACC)

Pitt defense:
194 yards/game, 4.77 yards/attempt
94th of 125 (national), 13th of 14 (ACC)

One thing I totally failed to notice from last week's game is that Cody Wallace made the start at RG in place of Conner Davis, who is - we learn this week - injured.  Other than explaining why Eric Tetlow got in the game, it might also be among the reasons why the line struggled early to push VMI off the line.

UVA can afford no such problems in the interior this week, and Wallace is going to have to play the game of his life.  With the twin terrors that Pitt has at defensive tackle - Aaron Donald already has seven TFL in just three games, and Tyrone Ezell is a beast of a nose tackle - it's likely UVA will struggle in the middle all day long.

Despite that, Pitt has struggled to defend the run.  Even against New Mexico they had problems; UNM's top two running backs, Crusoe Gongbay and Cole Gautsch, combined for 20 carries and 145 yards.  A pretty good day on the ground for a team that lost by three touchdowns.  Duke's Brandon Connette and Josh Snead carried 29 times for 160 yards.  Pitt has simply been unsuccessful stopping the run this year.

It won't help if they don't have their defensive ends.  Two of their better ones - Bryan Murphy and Devin Cook - look as though they'll miss the game, and linebacker Shane Gordon, leading his unit in tackles, is also questionable (and judging from posts on the Pitt boards, probably less than questionable).  It's obvious that the place to attack the Pitt defense will be on the edges.  Follow Morgan Moses; he ought to be able to easily handle the Pitt defensive ends.  If Zach Swanson wasn't missing the game I'd feel even more confident about the edges; Swanson is probably the best blocking tight end we have right now.

The question is going to be: who carries the ball?  Parks, of course, will be asked to carry the load, but will the coaches turn back to Hamm?  I'd like to see what happens - Hamm's very aggressive style could pay off in a matchup like this.  If Pitt had really good, heady linebackers it'd be different, because there's no deception in his game and a guy like Steve Greer would find it easy to diagnose.  But linebacking is the weak point in the Pitt defense, and Hamm's desire to get upfield quickly on a run to the edges would help neutralize the Pitt defensive tackles, giving them less time to disengage and chase him down.  Tippytoe runs while the back waits for a hole he likes will get our guys run down from behind.  Not that Shepherd is especially prone to that - but more so than Hamm, yes.

I think if the right game is called, UVA will succeed in the run game.  They'll have a really hard time punching it up the gut, but should find room on the edges.  The depth chart has Hamm fourth, but I do think the coaches plan to use him again.  And I think he'll outgain Shepherd.  Hopefully that's not a case of me predicting what I want to happen, because I'd love to see Hamm be the pleasant surprise of the season, not just the VMI game.

-- UVA pass offense vs. Pitt pass defense

David Watford: 65/98, 66.3%; 481 yards, 3 TDs, 6 INTs; 4.91 yards/attempt

Top receivers:
Jake McGee: 14 rec., 81 yards, 1 TD
Darius Jennings: 12 rec., 77 yards, 1 TD

UVA offense:
170.3 yards/game, 4.7 yards/attempt
123rd of 125 (national), 14th of 14 (ACC)

Pitt defense:
251 yards/game, 9.5 yards/attempt
119th of 125 (national), 14th of 14 (ACC)

Pillow fight!  The ACC's worst pass offense goes against its worst pass defense.  Or so it looks.  Actually I think the Panthers' pass defense will look better as the season goes on; it so happens that Duke and Florida State have passing games that will test any defense, and Pitt does have the ability to shut down lousy passing offenses, as they did to New Mexico.

A game against VMI doesn't tell you much, but it does give you this: there are certain things that if you don't see them against VMI, you never will.  An explosive passing offense is one of them.  David Watford simply needs experience before the passing game can consistently diversify its efforts.  Til then, this element of the game will be one where we just hope for good enough.

As for the opponent, the main concerns are Pitt's two defensive stars, Aaron Donald and Jason Hendricks.  Donald has four sacks this season and is basically Pitt's only pass rush - he'll be double- and maybe triple-teamed all day, and is the guy who our running backs (Parks, mainly, as the only experienced one) will need to keep their eye on in blocking.  Hendricks is a safety and a good one.

Otherwise, Pitt isn't too scary.  I don't think Watford will face much of a rush except up the middle, and Jameis Winston of FSU was able to have some scrambling success so hopefully Watford can do the same.  Pitt's corners got torched by Duke's receivers so ours should be able to find some room too..  Watford should be able to further improve his yards-per-attempt, but don't expect anything spectacular.  Because of the pressure up the middle but the likely lack thereof on the edges, I also think he'll find a way to scramble and maybe contribute three yards a carry to the run game.  If Fairchild calls some rollouts and bootlegs (which he hasn't yet, but hey) that could play right toward our possible strengths.

-- Pitt run offense vs. UVA run defense

Top backs:
James Conner: 47 carries, 326 yards, 6.9 ypc, 3 TDs
Isaac Bennett: 35 carries, 174 yards, 5.0 ypc, 2 TDs

Pitt offense:
184.33 yards/game, 5.17 yards/attempt
36th of 125 (national), 4th of 14 (ACC)

UVA defense:
192.67 yards/game, 4.90 yards/attempt
103rd of 125 (national), 14th of 14 (ACC)

Still too early in the season for you to let these numbers cause you any panic.  New Mexico is awful, for one, and Duke sucks on defense too; Oregon is still messing up our own stats.  Nevertheless, Pitt's running game has shown some signs of life that folks didn't expect when Rushel Shell left the team.

Freshman RB James Conner has been the star for the Panthers, having big games against both UNM and Duke but being largely bottled up by FSU.  Isaac Bennett, other than a pretty good UNM game, doesn't really look like a tremendously improved back over last year.  Conner is the guy the Panthers are going to lean on; he's a big, powerful back at 6'2", 230 and will be a load to bring down.

The Pitt O-line took a hit in losing center Gabe Roberts for the game, though its a depth thing rather than losing a starter, as Artie Rowell had beaten him out for the starting job.  Pitt's interior line is respectable but not overpowering; it's a fairly even matchup in the trenches.

That the Hoos have placed Max Valles atop the depth chart at linebacker, though, is a vote of confidence in the front seven, or really, front six in the run game since Valles is there to rush the passer.  Daquan Romero and Henry Coley have done nice work, and I think you have to be impressed by the tackle totals along the defensive line (although admittedly somewhat inflated by VMI's horrible O-line.)  I think UVA will likely be able to make Bennett a non-factor, and Conner should find much less running room than he's been used to the past two games.

-- Pitt pass offense vs. UVA pass defense

Tom Savage: 51/78, 65.4%; 861 yards, 9 TDs, 4 INTs; 11.04 yards/attempt

Top receivers:
Devin Street: 17 rec., 387 yards, 2 TDs
Tyler Boyd: 16 rec., 314 yards, 4 TDs

Pitt offense:
289.7 yards/game, 11.0 yards/attempt
7th of 125 (national), 2nd of 14 (ACC)

UVA defense:
140.0 yards/game, 4.2 yards/attempt
2nd of 125 (national), 1st of 14 (ACC)

The contrast between this and the passing matchup on the other side of the field is almost comical.  Pitt's Tom Savage absolutely bombed Duke, racking up 424 passing yards and six TDs in just that one game.  I said before the season Pitt could be dangerous if they found a complement to Devin Street, and freshman Tyler Boyd is it.  Both of them have big-play ability and will be one of the season's biggest tests for our secondary, high praise considering we have to face Stefon Diggs and Sammy Watkins later on.

That said, Savage has a few obstacles of his own.  UVA has a whopping 23 pass breakups, a number that is not terribly inflated by the VMI game.  The Hoos have allowed 37 completions, so an enemy pass is almost as likely to be ruthlessly swatted to the ground as to be completed.  Brent Urban leads the team - and defensive linemen nationwide - with five breakups, and Demetrious Nicholson and Maurice Canady each have four.

The pass rush is still a question mark, though; most of our sacks came against VMI, so Eli Harold and the rest of the pass-rushing gang still has something to prove.  Jon Tenuta will use Max Valles as a pass-rusher to try and boost the pressure on Savage, who is the pocket-statue sort of quarterback, and an NFL-friendly 6'5", which could help to nullify the D-line's pass-swatting talents.

The entire game, in the end, may swing on how well the defense is able to slow down Street and Boyd.  I would say that if neither reaches 100 yards receiving, UVA has won the game.  UVA doesn't need to sack Savage for the pressure to work; Pitt is not a quick-hit offense so if they can simply keep Savage uncomfortable, they can disrupt the show.

-- Favorability ratings

UVA run offense: 4.5
UVA pass offense: 4
UVA run defense: 6
UVA pass defense: 5.5

Average: 5

-- Outlook

Simply put, this is one of the most intriguing matchups of the year.  Both teams have some pretty deep flaws.  We have a questionable offensive line going up against a wrecking ball of a defensive tackle and a quarterback whose decision-making has been questionable.  Pitt's defensive end lineup is a nuclear disaster, and their defense overall is a problem.  Both teams have their strengths: Pitt's DTs and pass offense, our pass defense.  I can't see Pitt winning this game if UVA is able to bottle up the Pitt receiving tandem, and UVA is dead in the water if they can't run the ball and loosen up Pitt's already-shaky pass defense.  This game just comes down to who can cover up their flaws the best.

-- Predictions

-- Daniel Hamm outgains Khalek Shepherd.

-- Watford manages about six yards per pass.

-- Watford also contributes at least 30 yards on the ground.

-- Aaron Donald and Eli Harold are the only players on either team to register a sack.

-- UVA is able to keep Pitt's running game in check, with no more than four yards a carry.

-- If both Tyler Boyd and Devin Street have fewer than 100 receiving yards apiece, UVA wins.

Final score: UVA 27, Pitt 23

Rest of the ACC:

Virginia Tech 17, Georgia Tech 10 - Thu. - Despite crushing adversity brought on by unconscionable and totally indefensible scheduling screwjobs, the Hokies overcame the terrible obstacles and stood tall in victory with a heroic, stirring, against-all-odds victory.

Miami @ South Florida - 12:00 - USF's giant-killing days are dead, so the Canes won't have much trouble here.  Back to the big three in Florida.

North Carolina vs. East Carolina - 12:30 - Sadly, the Heels don't play Western Carolina to complete the trifecta.

Duke vs. Troy - 3:00 - Really stupid fun fact: There are lots of teams whose common name is only four letters long (Utah, Iowa, Navy, etc.) but these are two of the only three whose names are just one syllable.  Guess the other one and win no prize at all.

Florida State @ Boston College - 3:30 - Truthfully, the schedule-makers were worse to BC than to VT this week, making them play FSU the week after playing USC.

NC State vs. Central Michigan - 3:30 - MAC snack.

Wake Forest @ Clemson - 3:30 - Wake cake.

Bye - Maryland

(Answer: Rice.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Your VT/GT game summary made me chuckle :)