A Good Problem to Have

Posted on September 1, 2019 in The Team by Hooamp.

My dad texted me Sunday morning, "Hooos!" I texted back, "Yep had some issues but looked pretty dang good! 30-14 acc road win and room for complaints/improvement is a good spot."

What did this win remind you of? For me, it was a a basketball team-esque victory. A no-frills, workmanlike effort in which I found myself wanting more and nitpicking some of Virginia's mistakes -- and it still won an ACC road game by 16 points. Imagining such a scenario three years ago, even two years ago, is nearly impossible. I began to have this feeling last season, when I could really see the Cavaliers' potential. And it was evident again last night as coach Bronco Mendenhall and the Hoos defeated the Panthers for the first time in his tenure. The ceiling is high for this team, and there's room to grow after a solid win. I've drawn parallels between Mendenhall and Tony Bennett before, and you are starting to see similarities in the teams, too. The gridiron Hoos are starting to get it done the way the hardwood Hoos usually do: quietly, efficiently, not many fireworks -- but you look up at the scoreboard at the end of the game, and it's a relatively easy victory.

The game was close at halftime, with Pitt holding a small edge. Then the second half was all Hoos.

That sounds familiar, right?

Some observations:

There were several key moments in the game I thought Virginia handled well, but the response out of halftime may have been the best. UVa had played a solid first half with a hiccup on defense in the second quarter that allowed the Panthers to go into the break up 14-13. But Virginia had the ball on offense first to start the second half and immediately got to work driving down the field. Two big plays highlighted the drive. First was a dart from Bryce Perkins to Terrell Jana on third-and-9 where Jana got blasted in midair but held on for the catch. Jana finished with three catches for 29 yards. The second big play came on third-and-10 when I yelled at the TV screen, "Get rid of it Bryce!" It looked like he was going to get popped for the thousandth time in the game, but the escape artist found a path out of the pressure for a 27-yard gain to the Pitt 30. The drive stalled, but Brian Delaney hit his third field goal of the game, this one his longest at 45 yards, to give Virginia the lead back at 16-14. Though the drive didn't end in a touchdown, it was still a good response from the Cavaliers that showed they weren't going to let the Panthers gain control as easily as they did in the second half of their 23-13 win at Scott Stadium a year ago. Mendenhall said in the postgame press conference that he was impressed with his team's maturity and resilience. In the middle of this game, just like last season in Charlottesville, the result hung in the balance. This time, though, it was UVa that made the necessary plays and not Pitt.

While I'm mentioning Delaney, how great does it feel to have a trustworthy kicker? He went 3 for 4, and the makes looked like really good kicks. Two years ago, the game would've come down to the wire just because of Virginia's inferior kicking. The improvement of the team's kicking game since the middle of last season is is a big development that can help the Hoos win those games that come down to one possession.

On Pitt's next drive, outside linebacker Matt Gahm came up with his first career interception. In the postgame, Mendenhall complimented the way Gahm dropped into coverage, saying that was one of the first times since he's been UVa's coach that an outside linebacker did what the scheme called for in that situation, and Gahm was rewarded.

Virginia went right to work to increase its margin, with a Wayne Taulapapa run and then a series of Perkins runs. On third-and-five at the 13, I could see Hasise Dubois in motion at the top of the formation. I sensed a crossing route coming, and sure enough, Perkins found Dubois over the middle, who then did the rest by turning straight up the field, bulling through a defender, and stretching for the goal line and a score. It was a great effort by Dubois, who later gave up a possible first down by stretching and fumbling the ball out of bounds at midfield. But in this situation, the extra effort was worth the risk. Dubois finished with four catches for 45 yards.

Taulapapa had a good game at running back in his first start. The sophomore finished with 66 yards on just 10 carries and notched a late touchdown when it looked like Pitt wasn't trying that hard. PK Kier was less effective but still pretty solid, I thought, with five carries for 19 yards. In a game in which Perkins got hit over and over, I was once again telling offensive coordinator Robert Anae to please run the ball more with the running backs. When the Cavaliers did, they were quite effective. Perkins takes a lot of hits just being a running QB. We know what he can do in the open field, but why not make it more of a sneak attack? Pitt was keying on his ability to run, and Perkins still sprung some long ones, but I think the running backs are able to be effective if we let them get to work. I think the offense has enough weapons to make Perkins more of a decoy at times, and not the main workhorse. It could make the unit less predictable.

To highlight the above, Virginia should do whatever it can to protect Perkins. Whether he calls his own number too often on run-pass options or Anae calls Perkins' number too often, I'd look to the running backs to carry more of the load. The offensive line must pass protect better, too, though it was improved in the second half. Perkins was sacked three times. There were also times where Perkins was indecisive on passing plays. Other times, he looked really good letting the ball go early. Perkins finished 20 of 34 for 181 yards and two TDs.

With all the shots he takes, there's no doubt Perkins is tough. Another instance of his toughness came through on a long throw to former Arizona State teammate Terrell Chatman. In the second quarter, Perkins was feeling the heat from Pitt's Amir Watts and got blasted, but stepped into a long pass to Chatman, which he completed for 33 yards. It wasn't the best throw into traffic, but Chatman did a nice job adjusting his body and coming down with the reception for his first catch as a Wahoo. The drive led to a field goal and 13-7 lead. Perkins tried to find Chatman a few times during the game, but this was their only connection. Reports coming out of fall camp said they had chemistry from their days at ASU together.

Dubois scored a touchdown, and Chatman had maybe the receiving corps' most circus-worthy catch, but Joe Reed led the team with seven catches for 34 yards. If Chatman had the best catch, Reed's on Virginia's first drive of the game was a close No. 2. Perkins was hurried out of the pocket and launched a pass to the sideline that looked like it would just be an incompletion. But Reed stepped in and made the catch, dragging his right toe inbounds, barely, for a 14-yard gain.

Running back Chris Sharp had two receptions, with one of them going for a score on a play-action pass at the goal line on third down for Virginia's first TD of the season. Sharp had only five catches last year, but two were for scores. Against Pitt, his other reception went for six yards. The senior running back has certainly found his niche catching passes, and I hope he's more involved this season on pass plays.

Virginia allowed all 14 of Pitt's points in the second quarter, meaning it has now pitched a shutout in seven of its past eight quarters going back to the Belk Bowl. I probably took too long to mention the defense as a whole, but maybe that's because I'm starting to expect a solid effort from it, with the offense always being the wild card. Safety Joey Blount was the player who "broke the rock" after the game in the locker room, and he was certainly deserving, finishing with seven tackles, a pair of sacks, and a pick while also coming up with a few nasty hits. "The front seven is no joke," Blount said after the game of tallying his sacks. "It's the trenches. When you step in there, you gotta put on your big boy pads." Virginia's run defense held up much better against Pitt this season than in last year's meeting, and quarterback Kenny Pickett was often running for his life with Jordan Mack and Eli Hanback combining for a sack early on. Except for a handful of pass plays, Pitt's best offense ended up being Pickett scrambling, which shows how effective Virginia's defense was, but also that it needed to do a better job containing him.

Pitt mostly avoided throwing Bryce Hall's way. The senior All-America cornerback did get in on the action, though, with a sack, and he also made a nice play when he recovered from a gaffe by knocking away a long pass at the last second in the fourth quarter. After the play, Hall gestured as if to say he had made a mistake in coverage.

Mack left the game, and Mendenhall said in the postgame that the senior captain sustained a concussion. Mack missed six games last season with a shoulder injury. Hopefully, he's OK and can play soon, but maybe sitting out the upcoming William & Mary matchup wouldn't be a bad idea. Luckily, Virginia has plenty of depth at linebacker.

Oh and there was a punt block! Lanky linebacker Noah Taylor got a hand on a punt at the end of Pitt's second possession, with Dubois catching the deflection and setting up the offense at the Panthers' 19-yard line. It was UVa's first punt block since 2017 at Miami. I love the attitude of Mendenhall's players, with a starting receiver, Dubois, on the punt return team, and also notable was backup QB Brennan Armstrong on punt coverage. The best players are put in the best positions to help the team succeed, and no job is too small for any player.

Overall, it was a great opening statement by the Wahoos. Virginia hadn't opened a season with a road win since 2003, and it was the program's first victory at Pitt and first against the Panthers since 2014. It came into the matchup as the Coastal Division favorite and played like it. The players didn't look anxious, were prepared, and looked like a savvy, veteran bunch out there taking care of business. And even after the 16-point victory, there's room for improvement.

That's a good problem to have.