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Virginia-Pitt Could Have Season Long Ramifications

By Dave Holcomb
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Since the Panthers joined the ACC in 2013, Pitt has won five of six against Virginia, including the last four.

The biggest question for the Virginia Cavaliers heading into this season is whether they can finally knock off rival Virginia Tech and end a 15-game losing streak against their in-state rival. That won’t be answered until the end of the season, though, and for now, the Cavaliers are aiming to end a skid versus Pitt.

Since the Panthers joined the ACC in 2013, Pitt has won five of six against Virginia, including the last four. The only Cavaliers victory came in Charlottesville during the 2014 season, and this weekend’s game is at Heinz Field in western Pennsylvania.

Nationally, this contest won’t get all that much attention. Even in the ACC, Georgia Tech at Clemson, Duke facing Alabama and Louisville hosting Notre Dame on Labor Day are bigger draws.

But no ACC contest in Week 1 has bigger conference ramifications than the Virginia-Pitt showdown. Essentially, it’s last year’s Coastal Division champion against the Coastal’s 2019 sleeper pick.

With so much parity and mediocrity in the Coastal the last several years, it’s harder to argue one game means everything. Virginia vs. Pitt isn’t like the old Clemson-Florida State battles, where we knew the winner of the game was going to win the division and head to the ACC Championship.

There are no guarantees like that at Heinz Field this weekend, but last year, if the result between Pitt-Virginia been flipped to a Cavaliers win, there would have been a three-team tie on top of the division with Georgia Tech actually heading to the ACC Championship instead of Pitt.

Over the last two years, just one win separates Pitt and Virginia in the conference standings. The same can be said in division contests, as the Panthers are 7-5 against Coastal opponents while the Cavaliers are 6-6 since the start of 2017.

Again, just one win against Pitt would swing things in favor of Virginia in this budding rivalry.

In order for the Cavaliers to get that swing this year, the Virginia run defense will have to be much better than it was a year ago against Pitt. The Panthers rushed 42 times for 254 yards and three touchdowns in the 23-13 victory.

Virginia held Pitt to just 61 passing yards -- a dismal 4.4 yards per attempt average, but the Panthers only needed to attempt 14 passes to win.

It’s easier said than done, but Virginia’s key will be turning Pitt into a one-dimensional offense, forcing quarterback Kenny Pickett and new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple to beat them.

The other great way to stall a running attack -- get a lead. That will be up to Cavaliers quarterback Bryce Perkins, who should be able to create some matchup problems against the Panthers.

In his first year as a starter during 2018, Perkins posted 2,680 passing yards, 923 rushing yards and 36 total touchdowns. With the departure of Virginia’s top rusher and wide receiver from last season, Perkins is the focal point of the Cavaliers this fall.

While he’s a dual-threat, Pitt wants him running for his life in the pocket. Panthers defensive end Rashad Weaver tore an ACL two weeks ago, knocking him out for the season, which is a huge loss, but Pitt has other pass rushers that will be a big test for a Virginia offensive line that finished 10th in the ACC in sacks allowed per game last year.

By the looks of it, the Virginia-Pitt matchup is shaping up to be an entertaining Saturday night affair. Additionally, despite it being early in the season, it’s not a game either program can really afford to lose and expect to win the ACC Coastal.

The loser will be playing catch up and won’t have an important tiebreaker for the rest of the season.