CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — It was only one play in a game unfolding as a track meet, and it changed the game entirely.
Jordan Whitehead, deep in coverage as Virginia was trying to push the issue and sneak in more points before halftime, stepped in front of Kurt Benkert’s pass at the Panthers’ 41 and never stopped running until Pittsburgh took a 35-28 lead over Virginia into halftime.
“It was gigantic. It was gigantic,” Panthers coach Pat Narduzzi said after the Panthers won 45-31 Saturday. “We’ve been waiting for one of those picks in that coverage and we finally got one. … Tremendous football play by him and then he finds a way to get it in the end zone.”
The play capped a wild half that saw the teams combine for three touchdowns in one span of 63 seconds on a 44-yard scoring run by Virginia’s Taquan Mizzell, a 93-yard kickoff return by Quadree Henderson and Benkert’s 74-yard strike to Olamide Zaccheaus.
But it left Cavaliers offensive coordinator Robert Anae accepting the blame for getting greedy in the final 33 seconds of the half.
The drive began with 12-yard run by Mizzell to move the ball to the Cavaliers’ 44. After a spike to stop the clock, Virginia had a receiver wide open on the next play, but Benkert was scrambling, so Anae called the exact same play, hoping the same opportunity would develop.
“It completely backfired on us,” Anae said. “That was my fault all the way. I blew the call and put our quarterback in a bad situation.”
James Conner ran for 90 yards and two touchdowns and Pittsburgh shut Virginia down in the second half.
The Panthers (5-2, 2-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) held the Cavaliers without a completion in a scoreless third quarter, outgaining them 80-15, and limited them to 108 yards and a 36-yard field goal by Sam Hayward with 2:04 remaining. It was Hayward’s first career 3-pointer.
Virginia (2-4, 1-1) had its two-game winning streak end.
Nathan Peterman threw two touchdown passes for Panthers, the last on a shovel pass to George Aston making it 42-28 with 9:47 left.
Pittsburgh: The Panthers have scored at least 36 points in six consecutive games, a program record, so offense isn’t a problem. Their run defense is statistically solid, but might be artificially so because its pass defense is spotty. Kurt Benkert thrived in the first half, when Pitt had no sacks, but the Cavaliers quarterback seemed rattled after the Panthers sacked him three times in four plays early after halftime.
Virginia: The Cavaliers have the capacity to play well for long stretches, but adversity still presents them with challenges that coach Bronco Mendenhall attributes to a history of more failure than success. The adversity against Pitt came in two stages — Whitehead’s interception return touchdown, and when the Panthers came out firing on defense and applied pressure Benkert hadn’t seen before halftime.
Whitehead isn’t Pittsburgh’s only two-way player anymore.
The safety, who also carried the ball three times for 28 yards, was joined in that versatility by Conner, who took a few snaps at defensive end.
“We’ve been kind of working that in and as you guys know, he was recruited as a defensive lineman,” Narduzzi said. “… James is a super football player. I was happy he got a hurry on the quarterback and we’ll have a little bit more of that.”
Pittsburgh: The Panthers have a bye next weekend, and will then play Virginia Tech at Heinz Field on Thursday night, Oct. 27.
Virginia: The Cavaliers continue their three-game homestand by taking on longtime rival North Carolina.