Welcome to the 2019 football season, Wahoo fans!
The last time we saw our favorite team in action, they were shutting out the SEC's South Carolina Gamecocks en route to a 28 to 0 Belk Bowl victory.
The Hoos begin their 2019 campaign on the road for the fourth consecutive game. Their travels take them to Pittsburgh this time to square off against fellow ACC Coastal Division member Pitt. The Panthers are the reigning Coastal Division Champs.
The game is set for Saturday, August 31 at 7:30 PM. The newly launched, ESPN backed ACC Network will handle the broadcast.
The Hoos will open the season wearing their blue-white-blue combination.
Pitt holds an 8 to 3 advantage in a series that dates back to 1953 but only featured two matchups prior to 2003.
Virginia's first series win was in the 2003 Continental Tire Bowl, the precursor to the current Belk Bowl.
The Panthers hold a four-game winning streak in the series including a 23 to 13 win at Scott Stadium last season.
Keys To Victory
If the Hoos are to solidify their claim as Coastal favorite, winning the opener is a must. Pitt is a solid program and will present a challenge. But, there are plenty of reasons for optimism as well. What must the Hoos do to secure this win?
Win The Trenches
The premise is simple and elementary to football. And there's not a UVA Football fan alive that doesn't recall Pitt shredding the Hoos on the ground during the second half of Pitt's 23 to 13 win in Charlottesville last year.
The Panthers ran for a total of 254 yards that evening in November. Pitt running back Darrin Hall ran for 229 yards on 19 carries (12.1 yards per carry) including a long of 75 yards. In those 19 carries, Hall scored all three of Pitt's touchdowns in the game.
As a senior, Hall rushed for 1,144 yards. Fellow senior Qadree Ollison also ran for 1,213 yards. You don't get that sort of production without a superb offensive line.
But Pitt must replace four of those five starting offensive linemen. Only 2018 All-ACC Third Team center Jimmy Morrissey returns.
A fairly deep UVA defensive line needs to get the better of this matchup. A rotation that's expected to go seven deep should be up to the task as there are several players returning with lots of game experience. True freshman Jowon Briggs will need to hold his own against Morrissey.
On the flip side, UVA lost three OL starters themselves but does return three players with significant experience throughout their careers in Dillon Reinkensmeyer, Ryan Nelson, and Chris Glaser. Reinkensmeyer and Nelson are the returning OL starters for the Hoos. The challenge for UVA will be seeing how Ryan Swoboda responds to his first extended game time and how Olu Oluwatimi responds to his first time on the field altogether.
In the 2018 matchup, Pitt registered 5 sacks and 7 tackles for loss. However, the 2019 Panthers will be missing all of those sacks and all but 0.5 of the tackles for loss. Losing DE Rashad Weaver to a torn ACL in camp was a big blow to Pitt's D Line. Weaver accounted for 1 sack and 2.5 tackles for loss against the Hoos last season. He would have been Pitt's top returning defender and a serious pass rush threat. Now, the defensive line will be strongest at tackle with a three-man rotation of redshirt sophomore Jaylen Twyman, senior Amir Watts, and junior Keyshawn Camp. Watts was responsible for the returning 0.5 tackles for loss from the 2018 matchup. Twyman and Camp are the most talented of the three, but they did not impact the game last year with Camp missing it due to injury.
Neither line for Pitt will make things easy for the Hoos despite their inexperience and lack of stars. Pitt will always bring a blue-collar mentality to the field. The Hoos will need the type of effort that would make Bronco proud to win this battle. But that's the expectation.
Limit The Big Plays
Despite losing four OL starters, two one thousand-yard rushers, and bringing in a new offensive coordinator who has a West Coast Offense focus, Pitt's Coach Narduzzi still expects to run the ball with authority. Pardon me if I find that assertion a bit suspicious. Athlon's Pitt preview noted that wide receiver Aaron Matthews felt like he had more touches in the first nine spring practice sessions than he had in the rest of his career combined.
I don't doubt that the Panthers will try, but in game one I don't see them having a great deal of success on the ground against the Hoos. At least, not enough success to win their opener.
So how else will Pitt have to damage the UVA defense? They'll need explosive passing plays and some game changing special teams plays to boot.
Pitt's junior quarterback Kenny Pickett does not have a reputation as an explosive passer. But he does have some outstanding weapons at his disposal at wide receiver.
At 5-11 and 200 pounds, Maurice Ffrench is Pitt's leading returning receiver. In 2018, he caught 35 balls for 515 yards and 6 touchdowns. His long reception on the year was 78 yards. He also had 19 carries for 164 yards (8.6 yards per carry) and 2 touchdowns with a long rush of 31 yards. He's also a dangerous kick returner who averaged 27.4 yards per return and took two returns back for touchdowns.
Ffrench's top running mate will be Taysir Mack, a 6-2 and 205 pound junior. And like Ffrench, he's also a big play threat in the passing game for Pitt. He caught only 25 balls last year but averaged 22.3 yards per reception for 557 yards and 1 touchdown. He's a physical presence that will go up high to pull in the deep ball.
The Hoos also have to limit Pitt in the return game. The Panthers have made a habit of scoring there in this series. In the 2016 and 2017 Pitt wins, the Panthers scored off of kickoff and punt returns respectively. With the aforementioned Ffrench likely returning kicks for Pitt, the coverage units will have to be on point.
Avoid Sloppy Play
For anyone that watched last weekend's game between Miami and Florida, the sloppy play on the field was likely their lasting impression. The Hurricanes and Gators combined for 2 interceptions, 5 fumbles (3 lost), 11 sacks, 21 tackles for loss, 23 penalties, and an uncountable amount of missed tackles. Someone had to win the game but neither team's effort was winning football.
Season openers are notoriously risky due to the questionable quality of play. It's why FBS teams so often begin their season with a cupcake or two.
Beginning the season with a conference opponent that happens to be the defending division winner, on the road, is anything but a cupcake. The Hoos will not have the luxury of sloppy play if they want to leave Heinz Field with a victory.
The Hoos are fortunate that Pitt is replacing so many parts in its lineup, coaching staff, and offensive system. If you have to play a good conference team on the road in an opener, one in a state of transition is probably ideal. But the Hoos are not immune from those sorts of questions either. UVA is replacing 3 OL starters themselves. They're replacing leading rusher Jordan Ellis and leading receiver Olamide Zaccheaus. They're replacing departed long snapper Joe Spaziani. And they're dealing with injuries in the secondary that notably cost Byrce Hall's starting counterpart Darrius Bratton his season.
In order to win this game, and take advantage of Pitt's transitions, the Hoos will need to overcome their own while avoiding the type of play that marred the Miami-Florida game last weekend.
Under Pat Narduzzi, you can count on Pitt being a well-coached, physical football team. If the Hoos are to fulfill expectations this season, and those include being the media pick to win the ACC Coastal, this is the type of game they must win. The season isn't tanked if they lose this game, but expectations could be reset if they do, however.
The good news is that the Hoos are a pretty good team themselves (thus the expectations). And I love the timing of when they're playing Pitt.
Even without Darrius Bratton, this UVA defense will be very good. And Pitt's Kenny Pickett is not the type of quarterback that is going to beat you through the air.
UVA comes out of this one with a season opening victory.
24 to 10 Wahoos!