PITTSBURGH It was a confident University of Virginia football team that exited Kenan Stadium on the evening of Oct. 14, and for good reason. Earlier that day, UVA had defeated North Carolina 20-14, stretching its winning streak to four games and improving its overall record to 5-1. Two weeks later, the Cavaliers are wobbling.
Their four-game winning streak ended Oct. 21 with a one-sided loss to Boston College at Scott Stadium. The Wahoos' road trip to Pittsburgh went no better. Before a smattering of fans on a wet Saturday afternoon at Heinz Field, UVA lost 31-14 to ACC rival Pitt. For the Cavaliers, the story of the game was "missed opportunities," head coach Bronco Mendenhall said.
"I thought we had a great chance to come in here and take a step forward as a program coming off of a difficult setback. Our practices were effective and efficient, and the mindset was good. It did not translate at a high-enough level into making plays today. We had our opportunities."
In total offense, Virginia (5-3 overall, 2-2 ACC) outgained Pitt (4-5, 2-3), 314 yards to 310. But those totals don't include the 75-yard punt return for a touchdown by Pitt's Quadree Henderson midway through the second half. Nor do they reflect the Cavaliers' inability to convert in crucial situations. Virginia was 1 for 5 on fourth down and 6 for 17 on third down. Twice UVA was stopped for no gain on fourth-and-1, once at the Pitt 1-yard line.
"It's very frustrating," Virginia offensive guard John Montelus said, "because as an offensive line, we're [seeing] fourth-and-1, third-and-short, and we're looking for a big push. That was really frustrating, and we've got to come back stronger."
The game started promisingly for Virginia. Its defense forced Pitt into a three-and-out on the game's first series. Its offense then picked up two first downs, on runs of 11 yards (running back Daniel Hamm) and 10 yards (quarterback Kurt Benkert), and a 5-yard run by junior wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus brought up third-and-5 from the Pitt 38. Then came what UVA offensive coordinator Robert Anae called a "rash decision" by Benkert. No. 6 threw into a crowd of Panthers, including linebacker Saleem Brightwell, who intercepted the pass.
Benkert "knew he had to make a quick decision," Anae said, "and sometimes when quarterbacks aren't really grooved in and they're not in the flow of the contest, sometimes they hesitate or make a quick decision and just rip the ball. Obviously, the result of the play was not a real good one. They had only rushed three defensive linemen. They were playing huge zone, and there was really no need to just grip and rip at that point."
The first of Pitt's four touchdown drives followed, and Virginia, which had fallen behind 24-0 against BC, again found itself trailing early. UVA's first points came with 73 seconds left in the first half, on a 19-yard pass from Benkert to sophomore wideout Hasise Dubois. True freshman A.J. Mejia added the extra point, and the `Hoos went into the break down 21-7. Still, the knew they'd get the ball first in the third quarter, and another TD would make this Coastal Division clash interesting again. "I felt good coming out of the half, and we just came up short again," Benkert said.
The Cavaliers went three-and-out, and Pitt broke the game open with an 82-yard touchdown drive. UVA pulled to 28-14 early in the fourth quarter, on a 2-yard TD pass from Benkert to sophomore tight end Richard Burney, but could draw no closer. In a play that typified the offense's struggles Saturday, Zaccheaus, wide open in the end zone, dropped a pass from Benkert with 48 seconds remaining.
When something like that happens, Benkert said, "I just look at him and tell him, `Next play.' We've got more football to play. I'm going to throw picks. They're going to drop the ball. It's going to happen. So just keep playing and play for the next play. If you just focus on everything that's gone wrong before, you're never going to be good."
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