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Virginia could shake up ACC Coastal race with win vs. Pitt

University of Virginia Quarterback Kurt Benkert (6) back to pass during a NCAA college football game between the University of Virginia Cavaliers and the UConn Huskies at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, CT. (Photo by David Hahn/Icon Sportswire)
(David Hahn/Icon Sportswire)

It’s been five years since Virginia was an actual contender in the ACC Coastal Division, but the Cavaliers’ recent games against Pittsburgh have been quite competitive. And if the Cavaliers can knock off the Panthers Saturday at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, they’d help turn the division standings into quite a jumble of teams and perhaps even establish themselves as a legitimate factor in the race.

That seemed impossible after an 0-3 start that had pundits on ESPN College GameDay predicting a winless season for UVa. But after beating Central Michigan and Duke, the Cavaliers could improve to 3-3 and 2-0 in the ACC by beating Pitt. Recent history suggests the Cavs should like their chances.

Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall is 10-4 in his career coming off a bye week. The last two games between UVa and Pitt were decided by a touchdown or less and Virginia has won the past two meetings in Charlottesville, while Pitt is 0-2 on the road this season.

“We go down to play a good Virginia team that’s on a two-game win streak,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said. “Bronco Mendenhall, he’s had a ton of success as a head football coach at BYU, he brings his game, his defense, to the ACC. It’s really totally new for us.”

Fans of college football chaos should pull for Virginia, three-point underdogs according to Las Vegas, to pull off an upset. Virginia Tech became the favorite to win the Coastal after pounding North Carolina last weekend. If the Hokies handle Syracuse as expected this week, they will be 3-0 in the league, but a home game against Miami and road games at Duke, Pitt and Notre Dame are ahead.

Pitt has already lost to North Carolina and either the Tar Heels or Miami will take a second ACC loss this weekend when they play. In other words, if Virginia Tech, or perhaps Miami, can’t simply run away with the division, then it is most likely going to be a team with multiple losses representing the Coastal in the ACC championship game.

That’s particularly true of the Cavaliers extend their winning streak on Saturday. How likely that is probably depends on the secondary of both teams, which statistically rank as the two worst pass defenses in the ACC.

Virginia has seen some steady improvement in recent weeks as it has worked some young defensive backs into the lineup and all players have gotten used to a new system under Mendenhall in his first season at UVa.

The Cavaliers have also gotten better throwing the ball with East Carolina transfer Kurt Benkert now averaging nearly 300 passing yards per game and looking like he belongs on the long list of outstanding ACC quarterbacks.

But it remains to be seen if the Cavs can keep up the momentum from two wins in a row after a week off.

“Certainly there’s an argument for rest and rejuvenation, which I think we balanced appropriately,” Mendenhall told reporters Monday. “But we’re gaining momentum and improving because of the volume of work we’re putting in. So with a game not scheduled that wasn’t motive or reason for us to then slow down. So we accelerated. I think we’ve improved again.”

Virginia fans hope that is true, and if so the Coastal race is about to get wild.

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