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The Pitt-Virginia Turning Point of the Game: Whitehead Pick 6

Jordan Whitehead’s interception was an easy selection as The Turning Point of the Game

In writing about “The Turning Point” week in and week out during Pitt’s football seasons, yesterday couldn’t have been easier. Safety Jordan Whitehead’s pick-6 is The Turning Point of yesterday’s 45-31 victory over Virginia.

Pitt had just tied the game at 28, with under one minute remaining. With two timeouts and the Panthers’ suspect secondary, Virginia decided to take a chance. It was one that they would regret. The Cavaliers drove to almost midfield, before quarterback Kurt Benkert looked to his right and tried the seam. Unfortunately, Pitt safety, Jordan Whitehead, was waiting right there.

The sophomore picked off Benkert’s pass at the Pitt 41-yard line and immediately turned towards the right sideline. Whitehead followed his blockers and made one cutback, inside the 10, and streaked almost untouched into the end zone. The pick-6 gave Pitt a 35-28 lead with only four ticks left on the clock before halftime, and Pitt received the opening second half kickoff, too.

It was the Panthers’ first lead of the game and it was one that they would never relinquish. Pitt has made the majority of their games too close for comfort, but today was not one of them. Whitehead’s play, just before halftime, seemed to take the sail out of Virginia’s offense. The Pitt defense stiffened up in the second half and the Cavaliers would never get closer than the 35-28 deficit.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author@BrunoPittsburgh

Video: Pitt running back James Conner nearly records sack against Virginia

In Pitt's 14-point win over Virginia on Saturday, one of the moves that had everyone talking was the insertion of running back James Conner into the Panthers' defense. The team was a little banged up, missing defensive end Ejuan Price for part of the game. And needing a pass rush to help limit the Cavaliers' passing game, Conner got his shot.

And not only did Conner get into the game on defense, but he nearly pulled off a sack in his only snap. Included was an unreal spin move and a great tackle of the quarterback just after he released the ball:

Things @JamesConner_ can do for @Pitt_FB: ✔️ Play RB & DE✔️ spin moves✔️ pressure the QB✔️ everything#ConnerStrong pic.twitter.com/xF6DnW9E4a — ACC Digital Network (@theACCDN) October 15, 2016

There has been a lot of talk about Conner getting into the game defensively for a while now, but this is the first time it's materialized since he was used briefly on defense in the Bowling Green game a few years ago.

I'm not a fan of using Conner all the time on the defensive line, obviously, but throwing him out there for a few plays a game to help guys stay fresh is fine by me. He's clearly talented enough to cause disruptions from time to time.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.

Pitt defeats Virginia on road, 45-31

Pitt's defense made things interesting early on, but in the end, the Panthers prevailed for a 45-31 win over Virginia on Saturday.

On Friday, I sort of went on a Twitter rant since I didn't quite understand the optimism some folks had regarding Virginia's chances. As I said then, Pitt could certainly lose. But nothing in the team's play this year really suggested that Virginia should win. They had some bad early losses and while they had won their past two games, they did so against teams not as good as Pitt (and, perhaps, not even very good teams at all) in Central Michigan and Duke.

Now, Pitt sort of tested that in the first half as Virginia's passing game, as we all expected, was on fire. The secondary gave up numerous big plays and it was a back and forth game. Pitt actually led at halftime, 35-28, thanks to a Jordan Whitehead pick six. But if you ask me, Virginia looked like the better team. Pitt's secondary gave up several big plays and Virginia quarterback Kurt Benkert had a strong first half.

But as I suspected they might, they had a hard time matching Pitt's offense. Aside from the opener when Pitt scored 'only' 28 points running what just about everyone insists was a scaled back offense, the team has averaged 40 points per game. Few teams will be able to match that - especially ones with weaker defenses.

Ironically, if you're looking for a difference maker today, it wasn't the offense. That would be the special teams where the Panthers dominated. Pitt pulled off (by my count, anyway) three big kick returns - one of which went the distance as Quadree Henderson took another kickoff to the house in the first half.

To me, the biggest stretch was right before the end of the first half. Pitt trailed 28-21 with under six minutes left. Kicking away from Henderson, Rafael Araujo-Lopes returned a kick back 69 yards, setting up a Pitt touchdown to tie it. On Virginia's next possession, instead of playing it safe, they tried a pass that was picked off by Whitehead on that aforementioned pick six. Within the span of a few minutes, we had a 14-point swing and, while I can't speak for them, that had to be a demoralizing thing for the Cavaliers.

From there, Pitt took over in the second half.

As much as we criticized the defense in the first half, they played pretty well in the second, allowing only three points on a late, meaningless field goal. Part of the problem in the first half was a real lack of pressure. That, um, changed.

On Virginia's first drive, Pitt sacked Benkert twice, forcing them to punt. They got another big sack on Benkert on the next drive, again forcing a punt. On the third drive, they stuffed a crucial 3rd and 1 play. They went on to force two more punts before giving up the field goal at the end.

If you want to know why the defense had much more success in the second-half, it was clearly the pressure they brought up front. We even saw James Conner on defense, something that was talked about the past two years, and he not only made an appearance there, but was a factor in forcing Benkert into an incompletion after an unbelievable spin move.

The secondary isn't good - we all know that. But when Pitt gets the pressure they need up front, they're much less of a problem. With Avonte Maddox out, Pitt also lost safety starter Terrish Webb as the injuries keep piling up. He went out of the game then returned in street clothes, so we'll see what happens there. But man, this team is getting hit with injuries every single week, it seems. Ejuan Price also missed some time.

And while the secondary again was bad, the run defense also had some big problems initially, too. Virginia led Pitt in rushing (85 yards to 77) at halftime and Taquan Mizzell accounted for most of that with 70. Mizzell was bottled up a bit early, but did have a huge 44-yard touchdown. Like I said earlier in the gamethread, if you're going to be that bad against the pass, you almost need to be lights out against the run. Pitt wound up giving up only 100 rushing yards at the end and the Panthers more than doubled that, so it got fixed.

Offensively, I was a little surprised Pitt didn't do more passing. They threw a modest 21 times despite Virginia having one of the worst pass defense in D-I (even worse than Pitt's, statistically, coming into the game). Quarterback Nathan Peterman did the job with 137 yards and two touchdowns, but this was a game I thought they might finish with more passing yards. Still, who's going to complain about that?

Finally, I thought James Conner did quite a bit today to prove he's still a star and that it's going to take some work to knock him from his perch as the top running back. He had been kind of outdone a bit by Chawntez Moss lately, but that wasn't the case today. He had 90 rushing yards with two touchdowns and some of his yards were very tough. Moss had a quiet day with seven rushes for only 26 yards (he, too, was banged up a bit on a play on special teams coverage).

Conner had one touchdown diving over the top of the line and then repeated that feat on a key 3rd down play. He also caught two passes for 28 yards and one was a very good wheel route play for a nice gain. When you factor in the pass rush on defense, too, he just sort of put the team on his back today and did what they needed done. No really huge plays for a lot of yardage from him, but a lot of key ones.

All in all, this is a really nice win. I still don't think Virginia is a great team and that they will struggle to even reach a bowl with a pretty brutal schedule down the stretch. But it was still a road win on Homecoming and, in conference, two win by 14 points is great. Pitt is now 5-2 and carries some momentum into their toughest stretch of the year with games against three ranked opponents in a row, in Virginia Tech, Clemson, Miami, and Clemson.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.

Former NFL player, Auburn defensive star Quentin Groves dead at 32

Former NFL defensive lineman and Auburn standout Quentin Groves, 32, died Saturday.

The cause of death has not been officially confirmed, though  according to SB Nation, Groves suffered a heart attack. During the 2008 NFL combine, he was diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, which caused a rapid heartbeat. After a minor surgical procedure, Groves was selected by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the second round of the 2008 NFL Draft.

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Groves spent two years at Jacksonville, and then played for several teams, including the Raiders, Browns and Titans. He last played in the regular season in 2014.

At Auburn, Groves was an All-SEC star, tying the school's career sack record at 26 and setting a single-game record with four sacks.

Going Scouting: Virginia Tech

Pitt fans have two chances to scout out their next opponent

Virginia Tech hired the hot name last off-season to replace the legendary Frank Beamer. Justin Fuente is the new man in charge of the Hokies and his 4-1 start has landed VT at 17th in the AP Poll and 19th in the Coaches’ Poll. Not a bad start, but what do we really know about Tech?

We know they lost to nationally ranked Tennessee, but also fumbled five times (losing three), in that game. They have won four games, but three of them are to Boston College, Liberty, and East Carolina. The fourth was an impressive thumping of North Carolina, but it was also in a driving rain storm, which no doubt, hurts UNC’s passing attack. So, we may still not know a ton right now, but the great news is that with Pitt’s bye coming, you have two chances to check out Virginia Tech.

Once Pitt and UVA are done today, you should be able to flip right over to ESPNU to see Tech travel to the Carrier Dome to take on Syracuse, at 3:45 p.m. Not exactly a team you want to see them tested by, before Pitt, but fear not...that’s not all. Virginia Tech will then pull off the rarely seen back-to-back Thursday night games on ESPN.

Just five days after getting back from upstate New York, the Hokies have a highly anticipated matchup against fellow ranked ACC Coastal opponent, Miami. That will happen on October 20th, at Lane Stadium, and kickoff will be at 7 p.m. You can see that game on ESPN. What you may not know now about Virginia Tech now, you surely will know a ton more before they invade Heinz Field exactly one week after Miami to take on Pitt, at 7:00 p.m., and also on ESPN.

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author@BrunoPittsburgh

Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh names homecoming queen during recruiting trip

Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh kept busy during the Wolverines’ bye week — he announced the homecoming queen at a California high school game.

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ESPN reported that Harbaugh was on a recruiting trip at Antioch High School to see highly recruited running back Najee Harris, who is committed to Alabama. 

Harbaugh attended Antioch’s homecoming game against Liberty High School, and school officials asked him to announce the homecoming queen at halftime, ESPN reported.

Harbaugh called the name of Tatiana Mendez as the crowd roared.

Harbaugh said he'd never been asked to handle the microphone during a recruiting visit.

"That was an all-time first for me," Harbaugh told ESPN. "That was really cool." 

Pitt-Virginia: How to Watch, Schedule, Game Information

Pitt faces Virginia today as they look for their fifth win of the season. The Panthers have a winnable game but will need to be ready for the Cavaliers' passing game, which has been on fire lately.

The good news for the Panthers is that Virginia's defense has had problems this year - both in stopping teams from throwing and from running. Pitt may give up some points today, but their offense should be fully capable of scoring enough to win.

Given the struggles of both pass defenses, it wouldn't be too surprising to see a high-scoring game. I also look for Pitt to try to control the clock on offense to keep the defense off the field as much as possible. They can do that by continuing to run the ball and attack Virginia's run defense, which ranks in the lower half of D-I.

Here’s a look at the game day information for today’s contest:

Date: October 15, 2016

Time: 12:30 p.m.

Location: Charlottesville, VA (Scott Stadium)

TV: ACC Network (locally, WTAE/ABC)

Radio: 93.7 FM The Fan

Last Game: Pitt defeated Virginia, 26-19 at home (2015)

Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. Follow the author and founder/editor @AnsonWhaley.

(Don't) Bet the Farm: Pitt vs Virginia Predictions

The Cardiac Hill staff make their predictions for Pitt's 2nd road ACC game.

Well, I told you guys Pitt would make it interesting against Georgia Tech.

I didn't think it would be last-second-field-goal-off-the-goal-post interesting, but hey, that's Pitt football for you.

This week, the staff is again unanimous for Pitt. Virginia is definitely starting to turn it on a bit the last couple weeks with wins over Central Michigan and handling Duke, but I'm not quite a believer yet. For one, Virginia shockingly has a worse rated pass defense than Pitt, and Pitt has faced better passing offenses, in my opinion.

Having said that, Virginia does have a great passing attack of their own, and will certainly look to exploit that versus Pitt. Pitt's defensive line should be able to put pressure on Virginia's QB Kurt Benkert as Virginia's offensive line has given up a fair amount of sacks while Pitt is top 10 in sacks on defense. Virginia has next to no run game with less than 120 yards per game on the ground, whereas Pitt is more than double that number.

Long story short: While Pitt's passing defense has large holes that UVA can and should exploit, I think Pitt has huge advantages in the run game, run defense, and on both lines. Pitt lost this game two years ago, so I don't expect them to take UVA lightly. I think Pitt wins by about a touchdown, but a good passing attack counts for a lot. We'll see!

Corey - Pitt (6-0)

Anson - Pitt (5-1)

Chris - Pitt (5-1)

JD - Pitt (5-1)

Jim - Pitt (5-1)

Aron - Pitt (4-2)

Stephen - Pitt (4-2)

ACC Bowl Projections Roundup, Week of Oct. 9: Jinx!

I want none of you to be happy, so let’s run bowl projections on a blog about a team with only four wins!

With four wins and three winnable games remaining, Pitt is considered likely to go bowling by all eleven projections I looked at - and is being given pretty favorable spots, to boot. Ten of the eleven projections put Pitt in the ACC’s higher-payout bowls, which would be a considerable step up from the likes of most recent seasons. Some even have them in the TaxSlayer (Gator) Bowl!

(However, me writing this article now also ensures that Pitt will go 1-5 the rest of the season and miss eligibility altogether. Whoops.)

Notre Dame is eligible for the ACC's bowl tie-ins and is thus included here. I've included bowl payouts (source) as a metric of the prestige of the bowl, to remind us all of the inextricable link between commerce and nominally "amateur" athletics, and because the gift suites are probably better at the nicer bowls. Bowl payouts are not included for the playoff games and selection committee bowls because they are still to be determined. I’ve included “last Pitt visit” for additional selection context.

Projections Used

College Football PlayoffDecember 31st/Atlanta or Glendale, AZLast Pitt Visit: Never

  • Clemson vs. Michigan (SBN, ESPN-2)
  • Clemson vs. Ohio State (ESPN-1, USA, SI, CBS, CFN, SN, 247, CSM, Ath)

Cotton BowlJanuary 2nd/Arlington, TXLast Pitt Visit: 1983

  • Louisville vs. Boise State (CSM)

Orange BowlDecember 30th/MiamiLast Pitt Visit: Never

  • Florida State vs. Tennessee (CSM)
  • Louisville vs. Texas A&M (USA)
  • Louisville vs. Tennessee (SBN, ESPN-2, SI, SN, Ath)
  • Louisville vs. Wisconsin (ESPN-1, CBS, CFN, 247)

Citrus BowlDecember 31st/Orlando/$4,250,000Last Pitt Visit: 1978

  • Miami vs. Florida (CFN)
  • UNC vs. Ole Miss (247)
  • Virginia Tech vs. Ole Miss (CBS)

TaxSlayer BowlDecember 31st/Jacksonville/$2,750,000Last Pitt Visit: 1980

  • Florida State vs. Arkansas (CBS, 247)
  • Florida State vs. Georgia (SBN, USA)
  • Florida State vs. LSU (Ath)
  • Miami vs. Arkansas (SI)
  • Miami vs. Florida (ESPN-2)
  • Notre Dame vs. Florida (CSM)
  • Pitt vs. Arkansas (CFN)
  • Pitt vs. Ole Miss (ESPN-1)
  • UNC vs. Indiana (SN)

Music City BowlDecember 30th/Nashville/$2,750,000Last Pitt Visit: Never

  • Pitt vs. Auburn (SN)

Russell Athletic BowlDecember 28th/Orlando/$2,275,000Last Pitt Visit: 2001

  • Florida State vs. TCU (ESPN-2, SI)
  • Miami vs. Oklahoma State (247)
  • Miami vs. TCU (CBS)
  • Miami vs. West Virginia (SBN, Ath)
  • Virginia Tech vs. Oklahoma State (CFN, CSM)
  • Virginia Tech vs. TCU (USA, SN)
  • Virginia Tech vs. West Virginia (ESPN-1)

Sun BowlDecember 30th/El Paso, TX/$2,150,000Last Pitt Visit: 2008

  • Florida State vs. Colorado (CFN)
  • Miami vs. USC (USA, CSM)
  • NC State vs. Colorado (SN)
  • Pitt vs. Colorado (ESPN-2)
  • Pitt vs. Stanford (247)
  • Pitt vs. UCLA (SBN, SI)
  • UNC vs. Arizona State (CBS)
  • UNC vs. UCLA (ESPN-1, Ath)

Pinstripe BowlDecember 28th/Bronx, NY/$2,000,000Last Pitt Visit: Never

  • Florida State vs. Michigan State (SN)
  • Georgia Tech vs. Iowa (247)
  • NC State vs. Iowa (CFN)
  • NC State vs. Minnesota (ESPN-1)
  • Pitt vs. Maryland (Ath)
  • Pitt vs. Michigan State (USA)
  • Pitt vs. Minnesota (CBS)
  • UNC vs. Iowa (CSM)
  • UNC vs. Maryland (SBN)
  • UNC vs. Minnesota (SI)
  • Virginia Tech vs. Maryland (ESPN-2)

Belk BowlDecember 29th/Charlotte/$1,700,000Last Pitt Visit: 2009

  • Florida State vs. Arkansas (ESPN-1)
  • Miami vs. Georgia (SN)
  • Pitt vs. South Carolina (CSM)
  • UNC vs. Arkansas (USA)
  • UNC vs. Auburn (ESPN-2, CFN)
  • Virginia Tech vs. Arkansas (Ath)
  • Virginia Tech vs. Auburn (SI)
  • Virginia Tech vs. Georgia (247)
  • Virginia Tech vs. Missouri (SBN)
  • Wake Forest vs. LSU (CBS)

Independence BowlDecember 26th/Shreveport, LA/$1,200,000Last Pitt Visit: Never

  • Boston College vs. Western Kentucky (SN)
  • Georgia Tech vs. Cincinnati (SI)
  • NC State vs. Arkansas State (CBS)
  • NC State vs. Missouri (CSM)
  • Notre Dame vs. Kansas State (Ath)
  • Syracuse vs. Northwestern (SBN)
  • Wake Forest vs. Cal (USA)
  • Wake Forest vs. Michigan State (ESPN-2)
  • Wake Forest vs. South Carolina ESPN-1)

Quick Lane BowlDecember 26th/Detroit/$1,200,000Last Pitt Visit: Never - the Quick Lane Bowl is not the Little Caesars Bowl

  • Boston College vs. Maryland (CBS)
  • Duke vs. Michigan State (ESPN-1)
  • Georgia Tech vs. Indiana (ESPN-2)
  • Georgia Tech vs. Minnesota (SN)
  • NC State vs. Indiana (Ath)
  • NC State vs. Maryland (SI, 247)
  • Notre Dame vs. Indiana (USA)

Military BowlDecember 27th/Annapolis, MD/$1,000,000Last Pitt Visit: 2015

  • Georgia Tech vs. Memphis (CBS, CSM)
  • Miami vs. Temple (ESPN-1)
  • NC State vs. Memphis (USA)
  • NC State vs. Temple (ESPN-2)
  • Wake Forest vs. East Carolina (247)
  • Wake Forest vs. Memphis (SN)
  • Wake Forest vs. Temple (Ath)
  • Wake Forest vs. USF (SBN)

St. Petersburg BowlDecember 26th/St. Petersburg, FL/$537,500Last Pitt Visit: Never

  • Duke vs. USF (SN)
  • Georgia Tech vs. Cincinnati (SBN)
  • Georgia Tech vs. Houston (CFN)
  • Georgia Tech vs. Memphis (Ah)
  • Georgia Tech vs. South Florida (ESPN-1, USA)
  • Wake Forest vs. Cincinnati (CSM)
  • Wake Forest vs. USF (SI)
Be sure to join Cardiac Hill's Facebook page and follow us on Twitter@PittPantherBlog for our regular updates on Pitt athletics. This is an @N_THEYSTAYTHERE joint.

Against the Odds: Pitt at Virginia

Checking out the betting line for the UVA game

Pitt is a five point favorite for Saturday’s game at Virginia. The Panthers are coming off a a come-from-behind victory against Georgia Tech last week, which moved them to 4-2 on the season. Virginia had a bye last week, and they come into the game with a 2-3 mark, although they are riding a modest two game winning streak.

Since joining the ACC, Pitt holds a narrow 2-1 margin in the series, including a 26-19 win last year. All three meetings have been close and relatively low scoring, but this year could take on a different story. Both teams are in the bottom half of the ACC in scoring defense, and both offenses should be able to score points, so a higher scoring game could be on the horizon.

From Pitt’s perspective, we know what this team is all about for the most part. Matt Canada has breathed new life into this offense, and it can score points. The running game with James Conner and Chawntez Moss has been consistent. The passing game with Nate Peterman has picked up lately, and of course Quadree Henderson’s ability to do just about anything adds an extra element. Pitt should have little trouble scoring points on Saturday.

Conversely, Pitt’s defense has been horrific, and that’s not an exaggeration. Pitt’s passing defense has been a train wreck all year long, and with top corner Avonte Maddox likely out Saturday, it could be in even more trouble. Virginia is not a great offensive team, but they look to throw the ball under new head coach Bronco Mendenhall. That alone should be a concern for Pitt. The Panthers are going to need a big day from Ejuan Price and pass rush to offset the Cavaliers’ passing game.

Pitt has played a close game in five of their six games to date, it just seems like that trend is not going away either. They are also 0-2 on the road this season. With those factors, I think five points is pretty fair all things considered. There’s no sugar coating that Virginia is not a very good team either. They lost to FCS Richmond by 17 this season and lost to UConn 13-10 as well. They have been far from impressive. Still, it is their homecoming and they have had an extra time to prepare for Pitt with a bye week. Also given the brief history against one another, the games tend to be close.

I feel confident in Pitt on Saturday. They have more talent than Virginia and Pat Narduzzi has a leg up on Bronco Mendenhall. Virginia is in a complete rebuild and it will take time for the new coach to get the program where he wants it to be. I have Pitt winning by about two touchdowns, and that may be me being optimistic. Could Pitt be in another four quarter dog fight again this Saturday?

Let’s hear what you think below.

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