Virginia is taking a "why not us?" approach in what appears to be a wide-open ACC Coastal Division race.
The Cavaliers (3-2, 1-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) share the lead in the Coastal Division standings with Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh. Coach Mike London said they see Saturday night's visit from the Panthers (3-2, 1-0) as an opportunity to gain some ground in the division.
Staying the Cavaliers to stay in contention "that requires you playing, that requires you executing, that requires you winning those games," London said earlier this week. "So for us, before we even start thinking about passing beyond Pittsburgh, the most important thing is winning this game to go 2-0 in the conference."
The Panthers are coming off consecutive home losses, including a 21-10 setback to Akron of the Mid-American Conference last weekend, and Virginia linebacker Daquan Romero expects the Panthers to be angry.
The showdown will match strength against strength.
Pittsburgh running back James Conner ranks third nationally with an average of 158 yards per game and is second in the country with nine rushing touchdowns. Virginia's defense is 10th against the run, allowing just 86.6 yards per game. The Cavaliers have only allowed six rushing touchdowns all season.
The Zips focused on shutting down the running game, allowing just 129 yards on 40 carries, and Panthers coach Paul Chryst figures his team will face the same challenge at Scott Stadium.
"What are you going to do? You're going to take away someone's strength. Our strength is running the football," he said, adding that proving to be effective throwing the ball can also open things up.
Quarterback Chad Voytik has a pretty good weapon in that front, too, in wide receiver Tyler Boyd, widely viewed as one of the best in the ACC. Boyd last season burned Virginia for 111 yards on seven catches as the Panthers won 14-3, getting both their touchdowns on short drive after Virginia turnovers.
"We outplayed them and I feel like we should have come out on top, but we didn't," Virginia linebacker Henry Coley said. The Cavaliers limited Pitt to 8 rushing yards and had seven sacks for minus 69 yards.
This season, the winner gains an upper hand in the Coastal race.
"I feel like it's been wide open for a number of years lately," Coley said, noting that Duke won the division last year. "It just comes down to, on Saturdays, who's going to win, who's going to lose."
Here are things to watch for when Pittsburgh plays at Virginia:
RUNNING GAMES: The Panthers rank 16th nationally with an average of 269 rushing yards per game, and Virginia is 10th best at stopping the run. The Panthers also gave up 169 yards on the ground last week against Akron, and with Virginia still trying to get its running game going, this might be the week.
WHERE'S BOYD?: Tyler Boyd is among the best receivers in the conference, if not the country, and Virginia coach Mike London said the Cavaliers will have to know where he is at all times. He caught seven passes for 111 yards against Virginia last year and one or two big plays could change the game quickly.
LAMBERT: Starting quarterback Greyson Lambert seemed to have seized the job until he rolled an ankle at BYU two weeks ago and Matt Johns replaced him. Johns started last week with Lambert sidelined, and both figure to play again. Lambert, though, has the bigger arm, and can energize Virginia's passing game.
CONFUSING CHAD: Pitt coach Paul Chryst said his QB, Chad Voytik, sometimes overthinks things, which could play right into Virginia's hands. The Cavaliers rank second nationally with 18 takeaways and are tied for fifth with 18 sacks, and disrupting the quarterback is a primary goal of their aggressive style.
WHITE OUT?: Virginia's administration squashed any notion of a player-requested "white out," perhaps because about 28,000 seats were empty last week when the Cavaliers hosted Kent State. The school expects a crowd in the low to mid 40s, and players have used twitter to reiterate their "white out" desires.
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