• The 5–4 Panthers took the top spot in a muddled ACC Coastal division with a sloppy win over No. 25 Virginia.
By Emily Caron
November 03, 2018

Rain fell steadily in Scott Stadium as Pittsburgh kicked off against newly-ranked No. 25 Virginia in Charlottesville. It was the Panthers’ fifth rainy game of the season and the evening was just as dreary as that sounds.

The Panthers walked away with a 23–13 win after commanding the second half, improved to 5–4 on the season and secured a spot atop the ACC Coastal at 4–1 in conference contests, but the win was more than another W in the books: It was a perfect embodiment of Pittsburgh’s season so far, and the division more broadly.

The Panthers seemingly won by sheer will—not that they didn’t deserve it, because they definitely did considering how poorly Virginia played. But things didn’t look good for Pitt early on, which was concerning for a team that has won some pretty close games off strong first-half showings.

Virginia's opening drive set the tone for an unusual first half. The Cavaliers fumbled, then recovered, their opening kickoff, and then ran eight plays for a whopping 10 yards in a 4:30 minute drive. The Panthers scored first with 6:09 left on the first of three touchdowns by senior running back Darrin Hall.

Virginia responded with a rare Bryce Perkins pass to sophomore wide receiver Terrell Jana for a touchdown. The sole score of the second quarter came off a Brian Delaney field goal for Virginia and the teams left the field for the half with just three points standing between them. Pittsburgh trailed Virginia 10–7 after a half plagued by fouls (11 between both teams) and slowed by the rain.

The sloppy first-half start was followed by wildly different showings by both teams after the break.

The messier the night became, the harder the Panthers played—but they also played smarter, responding to their mistakes by pulling things together. Fewer penalties and a more aggressive defense gave Pittsburgh the power to stop Virginia’s offense in the third, tallying 10 points of its own along the way.

As Pitt took control defensively, it opened up space for the offense to play more aggressively with less pressure. The Panthers took the lead at the end of the third on a two-yard run by Hall for his second touchdown of the night. They then stopped a touchdown attempt by the Cavaliers early in the fourth, forcing Virginia to kick a field goal to cut it to 14–13. Hall responded with a 75-yard touchdown run on the next play.

With 4:30 left in the game, Pittsburgh’s sophomore kicker Alex Kessman somehow sent a 53-yard field goal sailing perfectly through the posts despite the messy field. The 10-point lead proved too much for Virginia to overcome, and the Panthers walked away one game closer to an ACC Coastal title. But it didn’t come cleanly—in any sense.

While some shined for Pitt—Hall finished with 194 rushing yards and all three of his team’s touchdowns, and the defense held Perkins to just 205 yards, one touchdown and 35 yards gained on the ground—sophomore quarterback Kenny Pickett couldn’t get much going in the passing game for the Panthers, going 7-of-13 for just 61 yards without a touchdown. His ability to make plays on the ground despite the mud was what took the game away from Virginia. Pickett was sacked three times as Virginia exploited weak spots in his offensive line early on, but the Panthers still somehow managed to will their way to a win.

This narrative, the messiest of games in the most chaotic of conferences, has defined Pittburgh’s 2018 season.

What may ultimately be the high point of Pittsburgh’s season stands in stark contrast to its performance against Penn State earlier this season: another muddy, mid-rainstorm mess of a game, but one Pitt wasn’t able to comeback from as it fell to the Nittany Lions 51–6 in a game that would prove to be rock bottom. Almost no one would’ve guessed the Panthers would lead their division not even two months later.

Neither Pitt nor Virginia has ever made an appearance in the ACC championship game. The Panthers still have to tackle Virginia Tech next weekend (and manage road trips to Wake Forest and Miami) for the divisional title, but the possibility of a conference championship game appearance is now within reach for the program.

Between Virginia Tech (3–1 ACC) and Miami (2–2 ACC), the Coastal’s conference championship participant is usually locked down. After the absolute free-for-all that is the ACC this season, however, the tides have turned, and teams considered pushovers in the preseason are now contending for a divisional title—like Pittsburgh—are thriving in the chaos, with a chance to take on the presumptive Atlantic champion, Clemson, as a reward.

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