Virginia will test Panthers' passing

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The most recent time Pitt had a three-game winning streak, midway through the 2010 season, the Panthers got the second win of that stretch against Rutgers.

Pitt dominated the game, coming away with a 41-21 victory. In the fourth quarter, with the game out of reach, the Scarlet Knights subbed in their sophomore backup quarterback, a kid from Pennsylvania named Tom Savage.

Three years later, Savage has transferred twice, and now hopes to lead Pitt (2-1, 1-1) to its first three-game winning streak since Dave Wannstedt's final year as head coach. The Panthers take on Virginia in an Atlantic Coast Conference showdown at 12:30 p.m. today at Heinz Field.

"Since I've been here, I don't think I've been 2-1," linebacker Todd Thomas said. "We always start off 1-2 or oh-and-something. [Pitt] coach [Paul] Chryst is trying to get this turned around and he's heading in the right direction."

Scouting report

  • Matchup:

    Pitt (2-1, 1-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) vs. Virginia (2-1, 0-0), 12:30 p.m. today, Heinz Field.

  • TV, Radio:

    Root Sports, KDKA-FM (93.7).

  • Pitt:

    Coming off a 58-55 victory last week at Duke. ... Averaging 40.0 points per game, third best in ACC. ... QB Tom Savage threw for 424 yards and tied an ACC record with six TD passes against Duke. He leads the ACC with 287.0 passing yards per game. ... WR Devin Street is fourth in Division I-A with 129.0 receiving yards per game. ... Freshman RB James Conner has topped 100 yards on the ground each of the past two games and is averaging 6.9 yards per carry this season. ... DT Aaron Donald leads the ACC with 2.3 tackles for losses per game. ... Leads series against Virginia, 3-2, but the most recent meeting was a 44-14 Cavaliers victory in 2007.

  • Virginia:

    Coming off 49-0 win last week against VMI. ... Playing first ACC game of the season. ... Is 22-37 in conference openers. ... RB Kevin Parks is averaging 86.7 yards per game, but broke loose for 135 yards and two TDs on the ground against VMI. ... Ranked No. 2 in Division I-A in pass efficiency defense, holding opponents to an 80.2 average passer rating. ... Is 10-14 in NFL stadiums. ... Has only eight seniors in the starting lineup, tied for the second fewest in Division I-A.

  • Hidden stat:

    Virginia is fourth in Division I-A in third-down defense, holding opponents to a 22.4 percent conversion rate. Pitt is tied for 67th in third-down conversions, making 40.0 percent.

Thomas isn't quite right, the Panthers started 2-1 in 2011 with wins against Buffalo and Maine, but dropped their next two. Pitt hasn't started a season 3-1 since 2009, when a 9-1 start got derailed by back-to-back losses to close out the season.

The first step of replicating that feat would be a win against the Cavaliers (2-1), who are aiming for their first 3-1 start since 2007.

Pitt's biggest strength so far this season, its passing game, should be challenged by a Virginia team that ranks No. 7 in Division I-A in pass defense.

"That's where I'm looking forward to finding out more about our guys and how we play," Chryst said. "But I think they do a nice job of changing up and presenting you with different looks. I think they're doing it with good players."

The pass defense is buoyed by 6-foot-7 senior defensive tackle Brent Urban, who anchors the defensive line and can clog the middle on run plays and get his hands in the air to swat down passes.

"You don't see that too often, huh?" Pitt center Artie Rowell said. "Especially at nose tackle, you get shorter guys that are a little bit heavier. It is what it is and we've got some things that we've got to do. Me, specifically, I've just got to keep moving my feet and stay after him."

If Pitt's offensive line can give him time, Savage is hoping to build on his stellar performance last week against Duke. Six touchdowns is hard to top, but Chryst said he still thinks Savage has room to grow.

"Last week he was better than Game 1 just on some of the game management issues," Chryst said. "He's putting himself in position where he does a great job of preparing during the week and in practice. On the field, off the field, he's doing all the things that you want from your quarterback."

Savage and the offense had to keep their foot on the pedal last week because the defense had trouble stopping Duke from getting big play after big play.

The Cavaliers don't do anything particularly outstanding on offense, but quarterback David Watford provides enough of a dual threat to worry the Panthers, who have had trouble shutting down such players.

Watford only has had 26 rush attempts for 48 yards this season, but Chryst said he thinks Virginia could potentially integrate more quarterback runs.

"I try not to read their mind too much, but when you look at him and his skill set, you certainly believe that," Chryst said. "I think therefore you've got to make sure you're prepared for it."

NOTE -- Chryst said middle linebacker Shane Gordon is doubtful for the game. If he cannot play, freshman Matt Galambos would start in his place. Reserve offensive lineman Gabe Roberts and safety Cullen Christian will not play today because of injuries.


Sam Werner: and Twitter @SWernerPG.


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