The Coastal Division championship can be decided this weekend when Virginia travels to Pittsburgh to take on the Panthers. Pitt would clinch a spot in the ACC title game with a victory, while Virginia would still need to take down rival Virginia Tech next weekend to claim the crown.
The banged-up Cavs come into this game off two straight losses, the most recent a 28-3 defeat at the hands of Notre Dame. But both of those setbacks were non-conference games, so Virginia remains just one game behind Pitt. The 18th-ranked Panthers maintained their slim lead by surviving North Carolina in overtime last Thursday night.
Pittsburgh leads the all-time series 8-4, but Virginia won the last meeting 30-14 at Heinz Field in 2019.
Virginia at No. 18 Pittsburgh
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 20 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Pittsburgh -14
When Virginia Has the Ball
Virginia had scored 30 or more points in eight of their nine games going into last Saturday night and had gained at least 449 yards in each contest. Of course, all of those came with Brennan Armstrong starting at quarterback. Without the lefty signal-caller, Notre Dame held the Cavs to three points and 278 yards of total offense. Needless to say, Armstrong's good health is vital to Virginia moving forward. The UVA offense with Jay Woolfolk in control was not going to be enough against the Irish and won't be at Pittsburgh either. More than likely, we will not find out about Armstrong's status until right before game time once again.
But Armstrong's injury was hardly the only reason Virginia lost on Saturday night. The offensive line failed to give the freshman quarterback adequate time to throw and was not effective in opening up running lanes for most of the night. While it is true that Notre Dame has a nasty defensive front, so does Pittsburgh, and a similar effort will yield similar results. Also, wide receiver Billy Kemp IV came out of the ND game with an apparent leg injury, and leading rusher Wayne Taulapapa didn't play at all due to a concussion. UVA will need all hands on deck this week in hopes of putting enough points on the board against an aggressive Pittsburgh defense.
Recently, the Pitt defense has turned up the heat to an even higher level. The Panthers sacked UNC's Sam Howell five times last week and Duke's Gunnar Holmberg six times the week before. Combine that pressure with the nation's No. 13 rush defense and you have problems for an inexperienced quarterback. However, Howell also completed 67 percent of his throws for 296 yards and Tyler Van Dyke of Miami was 32-of-42 for 426 yards versus the Panthers in the Canes' Oct. 30 victory over Pitt. If Virginia is going to attack Pittsburgh, it's going to be through the air and that means Armstrong has to be ready and in sync with Dontayvion Wicks, Keytaon Thompson, and, hopefully, Kemp.
When Pittsburgh Has the Ball
The ACC has several high-powered offenses this year. Virginia, Wake Forest, and North Carolina all rank in the top 11 nationally in total offense. But the best of the bunch is Pittsburgh. Even in one of their tamest outings of the season, the Panthers still put up 30 points and 441 yards against North Carolina. The play of Kenny Pickett mirrored the team effort against Carolina. The star quarterback completed a season-worst 56 percent of his throws, but they resulted in 346 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winner in overtime.
While Pickett will undoubtedly throw a bunch, the Panthers will also look to get the running game going once again. It's been hit or miss for much of the season, and it was mostly a miss last Thursday night as the Panthers only ran for 95 yards on 31 carries. But the trio of Israel Abanikanda, Vincent Davis, and Rodney Hammond Jr. have had their big games this year, topping the 200-yard plateau on four occasions. Granted, two of those came against New Hampshire and UMass while another was against Duke, but …
Virginia has a horrible rush defense. The Cavaliers are last in the ACC and 122nd nationally in that department, and Notre Dame, who averages less than 145 yards per game on the ground, ran for 249 last Saturday night after BYU gashed UVA for 385 rushing yards two weeks prior. The Cavs have a decent pass defense, but they generate little pressure, and if Pickett has time to survey the field, he will light up the scoreboard. While Nick Jackson, Noah Taylor, and Joey Blount are solid players, this is not a very quick unit, and they must be fundamentally sound to slow down Pitt.
It would have been nice to see a healthy Armstrong battle it out with Pickett. But, unfortunately, that doesn't look like it will happen. Based on how Armstrong looked throwing easy passes prior to the Notre Dame game, he won't be anywhere close to 100 percent even if he does suit up. With how Pittsburgh is playing right now, a limited Armstrong won't be good enough for the Cavs. Once again, Virginia will have difficulties stopping the run and that will allow Pickett to really open up the offense. The margin of victory will be determined by Armstrong's availability and effectiveness, but Pittsburgh will score in bunches regardless and win the game comfortably.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 49, Virginia 27
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— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.