PITTSBURGH — This wasn’t the defensive debacle a few weeks earlier at BYU. Nor was it the slew of missed tackles in the first half a week ago against Notre Dame.
Virginia allowed 509 total yards of offense in its loss to Pittsburgh at Heinz Field on Saturday, but the Cavaliers’ defense, at times, gave them a chance to win.
They just couldn’t repeat their success from one snap to another enough against the nation’s fourth-ranked scoring offense led by star quarterback Kenny Pickett and speedy wide receiver Jordan Addison.
“As a defense, we were really confident,” UVa junior defensive back Anthony Johnson said, “and we had a beat on what they were going to do. We pounded the film and we did a really good job in the film room this week.
“Our preparation, I think, was really good and just some things didn’t fall the way it was supposed to. But as a defense, I think we played our behinds off and we did a really good job.”
Johnson intercepted Pickett on the quarterback’s last throw of the first half. And when Pickett threw for the first time in the second half, Cavaliers senior safety Joey Blount intercepted the throw.
Pickett, who has a 36-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio, had only thrown two interceptions in a game once previously this fall and only twice previously since the start of the 2020 season.
Johnson’s interception came on a deep shot Pickett took and it prevented Pitt, which was due to get the ball back after halftime, from scoring late in the second quarter.
“We were in a half coverage,” Johnson said, “and I was essentially playing the deep safety. I saw pressure getting back to the quarterback and as I was guarding [Pitt wide receiver Jared Wayne], I saw the ball was underthrown and we were in good position to make a play on it.
“[UVa defensive back] Coen King actually came across and we kind of juggled and tipped it together, but I saw the ball as I was going down and it wasn’t on the ground, so I had to make sure I secured the football.”
Blount’s pick set up a game-tying field goal early in the third quarter.
There was more that UVa did well on defense. It held Pitt scoreless in the first quarter, becoming just the third opponent of Panthers this fall to do so.
In the opening period, Cavaliers freshman linebacker Mike Green sacked Pickett for a loss of five yards on a third-and-5 to derail the Panthers’ first possession. Green’s sack was one of three UVa had in the game.
And Green wasn’t the only freshman linebacker to come up with a critical stop. West Weeks had eight tackles and broke up two passes, both coming on third down. UVa held Pitt to a 35-percent conversion rate on third down. Pitt entered the game with ninth most efficient third-down offense nationally (48 percent).
“Whoever gets the most stops wins the game,” Johnson said, “and so with our offense, we’re so dynamic and can do so many different things that we just got to get off the field and get Brennan [Armstrong] the football.”
Unfortunately for UVa, its defense didn’t do that as frequently as it needed to in order to win.
Pitt turned two fourth-down chances into touchdown throws from Pickett to Addison, and there were a few other miscues, too, by the Cavaliers. Blount whiffed on a second-quarter sack opportunity when he couldn’t tackle Pickett on the first of those fourth-down touchdowns.
Cavaliers defensive back Darrius Bratton had a shot to intercept a pass late in the final quarter, but Addison ripped it away and eluded Bratton on the way to a 62-yard touchdown to give Pitt the score it would win by.
“Just too many mistakes in critical times,” UVa coach Bronco Mendenhall said, “or you credit Pitt, right, for them making great plays on fourth down to win the game. And I prefer to look at it that way. You’ve got to give credit where it’s due.”