For the first time since a (forgettable) trip to Annapolis in 2017, I made the trip to support Virginia Football away from Scott Stadium, trekking up for the Steel City for the weekend. This time around, I was rewarded with an inspiring victory by a team that didn’t look overmatched for most of a hostile-environment game. Pitt fans brought some early energy in the first half, but Bryce Perkins and company turned off the noise a played a mostly smooth game of football.
We likely didn’t see all of Bronco Mendenhall’s tricks in Game One, but some trends emerged that are definitely worth keeping an eye on as more challenges await. Let’s dive into what we can take away from the 30-14 Hoos victory.
Post-Zaccheaus, Perkins will spread the ball
One of the major concerns coming into this season was how Mendenhall would replace one of the best receiving threats in Virgnia history with the graduation of Olamide Zaccheaus. Joe Reed looked like a logical void-filler as Perkins’ go-to option, but with only a half season of major targets under his belt, there was uncertainty that him or anyone else could truly replace OZ as a true number-one receiver.
One game in, it seems Perkins may not need a stud to emerge just yet.
Seven different receivers hauled in receptions for the Hoos, a feat that only occurred twice in ACC play all of last season. No receiver topped 45 receiving yards, but many recorded a highlight-reel play that would have mostly been delivered by OZ over the past few years. Hasise Dubois and Chris Sharp caught major touchdown passes, Joe Reed had a fantastic toe-tap grab and new face Terrell Chapman had the longest reception of the night at 33 yards.
Last year, OZ was the only sure thing in the receiving corps coming into the season; many sturdy options are in Perkins’ arsenal this time around. With the return of Tavares Kelly and Billy Kemp into the lineup against W&M, there will be even more touches to share, but Perkins doesn’t seem to mind spreading the wealth.
A lack of confidence in the run game was apparent
For all the solid plays OC Robert Anae called through the air on Saturday, there was usually a puzzling running effort to follow. Most of the carries fell on Perkins’ shoulders, and more often than not he was bottled up, with Pitt forcing six tackles-for-loss and three sacks. Rather than run a zone-read, Perkins was running QB draws most of the night…or so it looked, as he could have just been chased from the pocket too much.
The shuffling of the offensive line during and after the game was a key indicator of what may have been the problem. The tackles were rotated between Ryan Swoboda, Dillon Reinkensmeyer and Bobby Haskins throughout the night as the Hoos’s offense occasionally stalled. The depth chart for the W&M game released on Monday muddies the picture even more, with every starter switching positions outside of center Olesugun Oluwatimi. The line is clearly a work in progress and could see some growing pains going forward, so the W&M game could go a long way in starting to solidify a winning lineup.
In a debut of limited carries, running back Wayne Taulapapa impressed. He averaged 6.1 yards per carry and showed a great ability to bounce off tackles, especially on his 10-yard TD run (albeit in garbage time). With some solid early runs, it was surprising his number wasn’t called more often. It would bode Anae well to give him more touches to keep the offense in consistent rhythm, giving Perkins a break from doing most of the work himself.
Howell and Poppinga were the smartest coaches on the field
With halftime adjustments that my colleague cleverly labelled as Tony-Bennett-esque, Nick Howell and Kelly Poppinga fully unleashed the beast that is the Virginia defense. A stellar start to the game for the defense was heat-checked when the reformed Pitt offense got going in the second quarter behind a no-huddle, pass-heavy attack that we’re not used to seeing from Pat Narduzzi’s team. The entire unit’s struggle to keep up with the pacing was exacerbated by their inability to pressure Pitt QB Kenny Pickett, giving him plenty of time to let routes develop and make decisions.
It didn’t take long before Pickett was running for his life. The co-DCs got creative with blitz packages throughout the second half, especially in utilizing the athleticism of the secondary. Joey Blount and Bryce Hall had three sacks between them, and suffocated Pickett into making many ill-advised decisions.
The defensive play of the game was delivered by a more unlikely hero in Matt Gahm. Lined up as a defensive end, Gahm dropped back as Hall blitzed in his place and fooled Pitckett into throwing the ball right into his hands. It was a gutsy blitz – one that worked for the first time in three seasons of calling it, ad Mendenhall said on Monday – that solidified Virginia’s momentum for the rest of the game. Finding new ways to pressure the quarterback could be the key for Howell and Poppinga to cement their defense as a nationally-elite unit.
Special teams – they’re finally good!
I tuned into Oklahoma vs. Houston last night and watched the title-contending Sooners trot out a kicker that missed two big field goals in the first half. For the first time ever as a Virginia fan, I could safely think to myself: “Damn, good thing we’ve got a kicker.” God bless Brian Delaney.
With Virginia’s red zone struggles from last season carrying over to Saturday, Delaney was paramount to victory. (The kick he missed was mishandled on the hold, so I’m chalking up his night as successful). Save the end of the Georgia Tech game last year, Delaney has risen to the challenge of being the clutch kicker Virginia has longed for since I started undergrad in 2015. Rest assured he will be one of the most important players this season.
Taking away the hold issue, punter Nash Griffin’s debut was rock-solid. He landed three punts within Pitt’s 20-yard line, the last of which led to a desperation interception from Pickett that sealed the game. The team won’t miss a beat from losing Lester Coleman if he continues to flip the field, especially when the offense goes through the lulls we’ve become accustomed to.
Finally, the first-quarter punt block was the first game-changing play of the season. Noah Taylor got a great jump on his man to reach the ball, and Dubois made a heads up play to haul it in. Besides the play just being awesome, it’s great to see players listed as starters putting heart and hustle into special teams. Having Virginia’s best athletes buzzing the field for transition plays (backup QB Brennan Armstrong was out there too) could lead to more – dare I say it…Bronco Ball – to steal momentum back for the team.
In a nutshell, Virginia won a conference showdown in a way that good football programs do – without having to sweat too much. It was an ‘escape town with a win’ kind of gameplan from Bronco and company, and for the most part it worked to perfection. We could be in for more fireworks against W&M on Friday, but as Virginia sports has taught us, never take a good, clean win for granted.