Could this be a season to remember for the Pittsburgh Panthers?
No, they are not ranked. Yes, they have changed their quarterback and lost their star running back for the season.
But the Panthers have the fourth-ranked defense in the country, which is precisely the result Pitt wanted when they hired former Michigan State defensive whiz Pat Narduzzi as head coach. With only one loss on the season and many of its ACC foes struggling, Pitt is showing signs of being a contender in the Coastal Division.
Virginia head coach Mike London, meanwhile, is trying to keep his job after getting blown out 56-14 by Boise State on Sept. 25. The Cavaliers' only victory this season was a 35-29 triumph against FCS member William & Mary, where the Wahoos allowed the Tribe to march to the Virginia 30-yard line with 1:27 left before holding on downs.
London would be due more than $2 million if Virginia fires him after this season, but the athletic program generally has one of the largest budgets in the NCAA. London and the Cavaliers are coming off of a bye and have had extra time to prepare, so this conference tilt may be the proving ground for his coaching career.
College Football Podcast: Week 6 Preview with Tom Dienhart
Virginia at Pittsburgh
Kickoff: 12:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV: ESPN3/ACC Network
Spread: Pitt -8
Three Things to Watch
1. The Continued Development of Nathan Peterman
He wasn’t even supposed to be the Panthers’ starting quarterback. But since taking over for Chad Voytik after the junior underwhelmed early this season, the transfer from Tennessee has proven to be better than a 60 percent passer and has the ability to get the ball downfield, something Voytik has struggled with this year.
While officially Peterman is still splitting time with Voytik, the latter quarterback didn’t throw a pass against Virginia Tech and was mostly inserted to carry the ball, something Voytik has done well against the Hokies historically.
Now Peterman faces one of the worst pass defenses in the country. The Cavaliers have allowed 285 yards a game through the air, ranking 112th in the country, and have not intercepted a pass while allowing 12 touchdown passes. Making his first career start, Boise State’s Brett Rypien threw for 358 yards against Virginia.
The one hope Virginia has to stop the Pitt passing attack might be linebacker Micah Kiser, who has 4.5 sacks this season. Even without running back James Conner, Pitt has been primarily a running team but has still allowed 13 sacks this year, with Peterman going down nine times.
2. Matt Johns is Virginia’s only hope
Pitt has the fourth-best rushing defense in college football. Virginia is averaging less than three yards a carry. Running back Taquan Mizzell has emerged as a pass catching threat out of the backfield, but continues to underwhelm as a rusher.
Maybe London would like to be able to rush the ball to keep possessions away from Pitt, but it’s likely not going to happen.
What Virginia does have is a promising quarterback in Matt Johns. A poor game against Boise State (199 yards, three interceptions, less than 50 percent completion percentage) has prevented his statistics from being outstanding, but he nearly engineered a victory against Notre Dame earlier this season and has thrown for at least 199 yards in all of his seven starts at Virginia.
Virginia has lost three starting offensive linemen to injury this season. Mizzell is the safety valve to counter the blitz, having scored an 80-yard touchdown against William & Mary and a 45-yard reception against the Broncos. Senior Canaan Severin is the option to throw long, and the wide receiver had 11 receptions against the Irish.
3. Beware of the Trick Play
If you’re London, and you have eight more days than normal to prepare for Pitt, and you’re on the hot seat with a 24-41 record in Charlottesville, and your season highlight was a flea flicker out of the wildcat formation that saw John connect with Keeon Johnson for a 42-yard touchdown pass to put your team on top of Notre Dame before the half, don’t you have to do something different?
Fans love creative plays, and London is overdue to have his fans love him. Virginia is not going to pound out a victory against the Panthers, but there’s always the chance they can deceive them.
Plus, a trick play puts a coach's signature on success. The Wahoos will need to do something like this to win. The only questions are what and when?
Close loss to Notre Dame notwithstanding, Virginia simply does not come to Pittsburgh in good shape. There’s always the chance the Panthers could have a let down, and the prospect of the Hoos doing something fancy is intriguing, but Pitt is simply the better team.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 31, Virginia 23
— Written by Marky Billson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. An experienced beat reporter and sports writer, Billson began contributing to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2000. He has covered the Steelers, Pitt Panthers, MLB and more during his career. Follow him on Twitter @MarkyBillson.