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Defensive adjustments, special teams push Pittsburgh past Virginia

AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File

The first half against Pittsburgh broke down exactly how Virginia would have liked. The Panthers were yielding passing yards in bunches, and the two teams combined for 56 points in the first 29 minutes of the game.

Then the Cavaliers lost their ability to keep up in a high-scoring game.

Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall remained aggressive with just 18 seconds left in the second quarter, asking his offense to operate in the two-minute offense and at least gain another 20 yards for a go-ahead field goal try. The decision, coupled with a poor throw from junior quarterback Kurt Benkert cost the Cavaliers mightily, as Panther sophomore safety Jordan Whitehead picked off the pass and returned it for a touchdown.

From that point forward, the Virginia offense wasn’t the same, and Pittsburgh cruised to a 45-31 victory.

The win was the Panthers’ first on the road in 2016 and improves them to 5-2, including 2-1 in the ACC. With the loss, the Cavaliers fall to 2-4 overall and 1-1 in conference play.

These two teams came into Week 6 with the two worst statistical pass defenses in the ACC, and through the first 30 minutes, the Panthers were living up to that poor reputation. Virginia had 276 yards of offense in the first half, and Benkert was 13-of-24 with 185 yards, a touchdown and an interception.

However, that pick, which was the final play from scrimmage before halftime, changed the complexion of the ballgame. It gave Pittsburgh its first lead, one it wouldn’t relinquish the rest of the afternoon.

In the second half, the Panthers found ways to pressure Benkert, making him uncomfortable in the pocket. On Virginia’s first drive of the third quarter, Pittsburgh sacked Benkert twice for a total loss of 19 yards. The Panthers earned another sack on the first play of Virginia’s next possession, which turned into a three-and-out.

Benkert avoided any more sacks the rest of the game, but he threw a lot of incompletions because his timing with his receivers was off.

Panther junior running back James Connor got in on the action… as a defender. Pittsburgh placed him at defensive end for one play, Connor utilized a Dwight Freeney-like spin move and knocked Benkert hard to the ground as soon as he released the ball.

In the second half, Benkert was 7-for-21 passing with 93 yards. After a 28-point explosion in the first two quarters, Virginia scored just a lone field goal in the final 30 minutes.

Pittsburgh can credit its defensive adjustments, getting more pressure on the quarterback, for this victory, but its special teams played a feature role too.

Virginia was moving the ball at will in the first quarter, but Pittsburgh stayed within a score because sophomore Quadree Henderson took a 93-yard kick return into the end zone. That tied the game at 14.

Two kickoffs later, the Cavaliers avoided kicking the ball to Henderson. It didn’t matter, though, because redshirt sophomore Rafael Araujo-Lopes had his own long return of 69 yards to the Virginia 26-yard line. That return led to another Pittsburgh touchdown and tied the game at 28.

Whitehead’s interception return for a score may have tipped the momentum to Pittsburgh’s favor for good, but it was the Panthers’ third impactful return of the game, and without the first two, Pat Narduzzi’s first road victory of the season would have been much more difficult.

Pittsburgh will have to build upon this second-half defensive performance in the next few weeks to stay alive in the Coastal Division race. After their bye next Saturday, the Panthers face No. 17 Virginia Tech and then both No. 16 Miami and No. 3 Clemson on the road.

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