PITTSBURGH—Virginia linebacker Rob Snyder didn’t even try to disguise his intentions.
Inching closer to the line of scrimmage during Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett’s pre-snap cadence, Snyder crouched low in his stance. On the snap, he exploded like a sprinter coming out of the starting blocks and leveled Pickett just as he released the ball.
As Snyder popped up and went off in search of someone to celebrate with, Pickett laid flat on his back with both hands clasped to his facemask as if he was afraid it was going to fall off as a teammate leaned over and offered a hand to help his quarterback off the turf.
A couple drives later, safety Joey Blount delivered a blow, which again left Pickett on the turf in Heinz Field taking a mental inventory of his internal organs. This time, it took two teammates to help him to his feet.
Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall’s message before Saturday’s season opener at Pittsburgh was the same as before last season’s home loss to the Panthers. If they had any chance of snapping their four-game losing streak to Pitt, the Cavaliers had to be the more physical team.
The difference this year is the Cavaliers delivered on their coach’s words. A year after surrendering more than 250 yards on the ground, Virginia limited Pitt to 78, sacked Pickett four times and boarded a plane for the 35-minute flight back to Charlottesville with a 30–14 victory.
Four UVa players recorded at least a half a sack and Blount led the way with two. Pickett had a player in his face every time he dropped back and by the fourth quarter, all the hits began to take their toll.
“We sent a lot of pressure at the quarterback,” Blount said. “We saw in preparation that he really got out of the pocket a lot, he got frazzled with pressure in his face and he tried to force the ball down the field a lot.”
After halftime, Pitt managed just 86 yards of total offense and 23 on the ground. The Cavaliers’ goal in every game this season is to hold their opponent to fewer than 3.5 yards per carry. They just missed that Saturday (Pitt averaged 4.5), but they did check a pretty important box in setting the tone for the rest of the season.
It was a special night for Virginia linebacker Zane Zandier, who, despite playing with a cast on his right hand, led the way with nine tackles in his homecoming game. Zandier grew up near Pittsburgh and played his high school ball just 15 minutes from Heinz Field at Thomas Jefferson High School.