Pitt beats Virginia 45-31, for needed conference win
October 15, 2016 4:16 PM
Chet Strange / Getty Images
Pitt's Jester Weah runs the ball for a touchdown during the game against the Virginia at Scott Stadium on Saturday.
By Jenn Menendez / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Safety Jordan Whitehead picked off Virginia quarterback Kurt Benkert with just 0:04 to play in the first half Saturday, and ran the interception back 59 yards for a touchdown.
The play gave Pitt a one-score halftime lead, and the Panthers never looked back, knocking off Virginia, 45-31, to improve to 5-2 overall, 2-1 in the ACC.
The touchdown punctuated a wild first half that saw the Coastal Division foes score a combined nine touchdowns.
It also inspired a standout second half from Pitt’s beleaguered defense — which suffered several injuries by the end of the game. They held Virginia to 108 second-half yards, and a single field goal as the offense grinded out the clock and built a commanding lead to spoil the Cavaliers’ homecoming at Scott Stadium.
“Obviously that’s a great road win and long overdue,” Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said. “I challenged our guys to be road warriors and to come here and finish the game off on the road against a good football team that has a lot of skill and is well coached.”
Pitt was in its third-down defense when Virginia lined up on third-and-10 from its 44. Whitehead said he locked eyes with Benkert, who had thrown an incomplete pass to the sideline on the previous snap. He then saw tailback Albert Reid get in position for the reception, and waited to make his move.
“I saw the quarterback, he keyed on me, looking at me,” Whitehead said. “We’re taught to read the quarterback. When he was looking at me I stayed still. I saw No. 2 slip in front of me, so I kind of just followed him a little bit and when he threw I was right there and saw an open field from there.”
Pitt had returned four times from deficits in the first half before the pick-6.
They trailed early when Virginia capitalized on consecutive penalties against Pitt — an offside followed by an illegal substitution penalty that changed a fourth-down punt into a first-down conversion on fourth-and-inches.
Pitt responded with a 38-yard touchdown reception by Jester Weah, then picked up first-half touchdowns from Quadree Henderson, on a 93-yard kickoff return, and two rushing touchdowns by James Conner.
Whitehead’s play changed the game.
“It was gigantic,” Narduzzi said. “We have been waiting for one of those picks in that coverage and we finally got one. We kind of baited [the quarterback] in there. … It was a tremendous football play by him, and then he finds a way to get into the end zone, not just get the interception.”
The win marked the sixth consecutive game Pitt has scored 36 or more points this season, but the first that didn’t come down to the game’s final minutes.
“You know, I hate playing in close games,” Henderson said. “That was a huge sigh of relief, having a comfortable lead and our defense getting off the field and our offense being able to execute those last 2:03 to come away with the victory.”
Virginia contained Pitt’s jet sweeps well, but that opened up the downhill running game. Conner finished with two touchdowns, and 92 rushing yards, with a long of 20.
“I think we did a lot of things well,” quarterback Nate Peterman said. “A lot of things to correct still, but there are guys making plays all over the field. ... That was a huge play by Jordan and our whole defense getting him into the end zone. I think that was a big momentum swing.
“We knew we still had to come out and finish the game. I thought as a team we did that great. Offensively we can do some things better in the second half to hopefully run away with it a little bit more. That was a great team win, just awesome for everybody.”
Narduzzi did not share an update on the health of defensive end Ejuan Price, who did not return to the game after leaving in the second half, or defensive back Terrish Webb, who was injured in the second quarter.
Fullback George Aston caught a 5-yard touchdown pass from Peterman with 9:47 left in the game, on a drive that included 37 rushing yards by Conner.
Chris Blewitt added a 25-yard field goal with 3:24 to play and Virginia’s Sam Hayward kicked a 36-yard field goal with 2:04 left in the game.
Benkert threw for 185 yards by halftime, and got scores from teammates Taquan Mizzell (44-yard rushing touchdown), Olamide Zaccheaus (74-yard touchdown reception) and Albert Reid (1-yard rushing score) to give the Cavaliers a 28-21 lead before Pitt surged ahead with touchdowns by Conner and Whitehead.
NOTES — Phillipie Motley started at cornerback in place of the injured Avonte Maddox. … Linebacker Mike Caprara dressed and warmed up but did not play. Nor did defensive backs Damar Hamlin and Therran Coleman. Both participated in warm-ups.
Jenn Menendez: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @JennMenendez.
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