In some ways, Virginia continued to show improvement Saturday in its 45-31 loss to Pittsburgh, but if the Cavaliers, now 2-4 and 1-1 in the ACC, hope to salvage a season that began with an embarrassing loss to Richmond, they will need quarterback Kurt Benkert to bounce back quickly.
Even in the early losses, Benkert, a junior transfer from East Carolina, was a bright spot. During the Cavaliers’ back-to-back victories against Central Michigan and Duke, he threw for more than 750 yards and eight touchdowns.
Saturday in Charlottesville started out much the same way. Benkert threw for more than 180 yards and led the Cavaliers to a 28-point outburst in the first half. The Virginia defense had played well as well, but the Panthers had two touchdowns come directly or indirectly off long kickoff returns.
So with the game tied 28-all in the final minute of the first half the Cavs were driving again, thinking about getting at least three more points before the intermission, when Benkert threw an interception Pittsburgh returned for a touchdown as the final seconds of the half ticked away.
“I’m not sure to what extent it had an effect on him, but boy what a momentum shift,” Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall told reporters after the game.
“We were going and all of the sudden think we might get some more points on the board and then it flips. However we want our quarterback to be aggressive, and we want him to have confidence and we promote that. So I’m not going to put all of the outcome of the game on that one play. It certainly was a big play and it certainly was a momentum shifter, but that’s part of college football.”
It’s over simplifying things to say that momentum swing cost Virginia the game. Pitt made plenty of adjustments in the second half to turn the game from shootout to slugfest and got significantly more pressure on Benkert in the second half, sacking him four times.
But the Virginia quarterback was clearly a bit rattled after the second-quarter ending mistake. The man who looked so assured in his decisions and confident in his strong arm all season was hesitant in the second half, throwing for just 90 more yards while Virginia managed just a late field goal.
“It’s hard to be consistent, Mendenhall said. “It went according to plan in the first half and not as much in the second half. But I also think playing from behind is a little different than playing from ahead, so I think Pitt started to rush more aggressively, play pass defense more than run defense and were expecting us to catch up through the air.”
Benkert finished the game completing under 50 percent of his passes for the first time in a Virginia uniform.
The demeanor and skill Benkert showed in previous games suggest it could just be a temporary setback, simply an off day. His teammates indicated they aren’t worried about their QB.
“I’m not sure if it was rhythm,” Virginia running back Taquan Mizzell said. “He usually does a good job of having a short memory and getting back and making plays. I just give credit to Pitt for this one.”
If Virginia is going to add to its win total this season, the Cavaliers better hope so.