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Teel: Virginia needs striking defensive improvement against Pitt, whether or not Armstrong plays

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Bronco Mendenhall says Virginia’s defense improved last week against Notre Dame. As his Cavaliers prepare for a far more powerful offense Saturday, with much higher stakes, let’s bring some context to that progress.

In dusting UVa 28-3, Notre Dame averaged 6.8 yards per play, the team’s third-best output this season, and 6.6 yards per rush. Only once this season, versus North Carolina, had the Fighting Irish averaged as many as 5 yards per carry.

Rest assured, Notre Dame’s production against Virginia could have been even more jarring. The Irish led 28-0 entering the fourth quarter and essentially shut the offense down thereafter, playing reserves and forgoing the pass.

When Notre Dame actually wanted to score, it did so, taking advantage of repeated missed tackles at every level — defensive line, linebacker and secondary.

“Any significant play that happened the other night, there was an unblocked player missing a tackle that led to extra yardage or points,” Mendenhall said. “We gave up 28 [points]. It could have been better than that. But it is where we are.”

One final note about Notre Dame: The Irish played at a languid pace, snapping the ball once every 28.7 seconds of possession time, contributing to the relatively low score.

Saturday’s opponent won’t be nearly as casual and will reveal if the Cavaliers’ defense has made any meaningful strides.

Pittsburgh this season runs a play every 24.2 seconds, which compared to Notre Dame’s pace translates to, presuming 30 minutes of possession, 11 more snaps. The Panthers can do considerable damage on one play, let alone 11.

They rank fourth nationally in scoring at 43.5 points per game and second in total offense at 531.1 yards per game. They are the third top-15 scoring team UVa has encountered this season.

The first, North Carolina, drummed the Cavaliers 59-39. The second, Wake Forest, won 37-17 at Scott Stadium, Virginia’s most-lopsided home setback in four years.

At Brigham Young, in their game prior to Notre Dame, the Cavaliers yielded 66 points to an opponent that had been averaging 26. Hence, Mendenhall’s contention that last week marked an improvement.

“There’s been two games this year that got away from us, right?” Mendenhall said, referring to North Carolina and BYU. “If you could wave a magic wand, those go away, it’s 22 1/2 points per game [that UVa is allowing per game] rather than what the other marker is.”

Now there’s a spin rate any major league pitcher would crave.

Sure, if you toss out the BYU and UNC defeats, Virginia is allowing 22.5 points per game instead of “the other marker,” which is 30.5 and ranks 98th among 130 Bowl Subdivision teams. But football isn’t Olympic gymnastics or figure skating, where you throw away the judges’ low and high score.

Moreover, BYU and North Carolina weren’t the only games “that got away” from the Cavaliers.

Though Wake Forest scored “only” 37 points against UVa, nearly eight below its average, the game was not competitive in the fourth quarter, much like last week against Notre Dame. Indeed, after scoring on their first seven possessions, the Deacons downshifted for the final three, content to call eight rushes and one pass and punt on each.

The numbers don’t lie. Virginia stands not only 98th in scoring defense but also 120th in total defense.

Attempting to batten down their pass defense, the Cavaliers have deployed more three-man fronts this season, but the trade-off has been they’re allowing 5.8 yards per rush. Only four FBS teams are worse.

Virginia reverted to more four-down alignments versus Notre Dame, and Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said “it’s kind of hard to see what they are.”

UVa (6-4, 4-2 ACC) remains in Coastal Division contention because quarterback Brennan Armstrong leads the FBS in total offense at 425.3 yards per game, while Dontayvion Wicks averages 22.8 yards per catch, tops among all players with at least 25 receptions — how Wicks is not one of the 10 semifinalists for the Biletnikoff Award as college football’s top receiver is a mystery.

Pitt (8-2, 5-1) clinches the Coastal with a victory and counters with Kenny Pickett and Jordan Addison. Pickett ranks third nationally in total offense at 374.8 yards, while Addison shares the FBS lead with 11 touchdown receptions.

What separates the Panthers and Cavaliers are quarterback health and defense.

Armstrong is questionable for Saturday after missing the Notre Dame clash with a rib injury sustained at BYU. Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi said he expects Armstrong to play, and if he’s right, Saturday at Heinz Field figures to be compelling.

If Armstrong is unavailable, again pressing true freshman Jay Woolfolk into the lineup, bank on a Panthers defense that is third nationally in sacks at 3.6 per game to pounce. Notre Dame sacked Woolfolk seven times.

Regardless of which quarterback they start, the Cavaliers will need striking defensive improvement to win.

David Teel reports for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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