Virginia

» Throw the first punch: Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall has been open about the fact that Pittsburgh has been the more physical team in recent memory. Last season, Pitt’s running backs put their heads down and ran through the Cavaliers from the opening snap to the last. This year, Virginia has to come out early in the game and prove that isn’t going to be the case. Whether it’s a long drive or a big stop on defense, the Cavaliers need to take the air out of the stadium early.

» Run the ball: The question this season is can Virginia replace and maybe even improve on Jordan Ellis’ production? If the Cavaliers can answer in the affirmative on Saturday against Pitt's talented collection of linebackers and defensive backs, expectations in Charlottesville are going to go further through the roof than they already are. Success on the ground also will slow down the pass rush and keep UVa out of third-and-long, both of which will take pressure off quarterback Bryce Perkins.

» Keep everything in front: From quarterback Kenny Pickett to top receivers Maurice Ffrench and Taysir Mack, Pitt returns plenty in the passing game. Where the Panthers don’t have an abundance of proven playmakers is in the backfield or on the offensive line. Especially with new offensive coordinator Mark Whipple in town, the Panthers are going to throw it around more than last year. Unless its pass rush takes a giant leap from last season, Virginia’s secondary can’t afford to just sit back in a zone, but it also can’t give up anything over the top.


 

Pittsburgh

» Make Perkins win with his arm: Bryce Perkins is one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the ACC, and if the Panthers let him, he’ll take over a game with his legs. Pitt’s edge rushers have to be disciplined when they blitz to keep him in the pocket, and the Panthers’ coaches need to find ways to get pressure up the middle, which will collapse running lanes and force Perkins to throw before he wants to.

» Keep UVa in third-and-long: Another method for stifling Perkins’ athleticism is for the Panthers’ defensive coaches to be aggressive with their play calling on early downs in the hopes of forcing Virginia to convert third-and-long over and over again. On an obvious passing down, Perkins is less likely to take off running and more apt to buy time with his legs and force a throw, which could result in a turnover.

» Don’t shy away from Hall: Conventional wisdom when facing a cornerback of Bryce Hall’s status is to simply stay away from him. Throw to the other side of the field. The obvious problem with that is you’re taking away half the field. You’re essentially cutting the playbook in half, which makes it that much easier for the defense to anticipate your next move. Instead, the Panthers just have to pick and choose when to test Hall. When they do, they have to use formations, which naturally lend themselves to rub routes (AKA pick plays), and they need to employ every decoy and double move in the book to improve their odds.

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Ron Counts covers University of Virginia athletics for The Daily Progress.​ Contact him at rcounts@dailyprogress.com, (434) 978-7245, or on Twitter @Ron_CDPsports.

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