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Five storylines to watch in Saturday’s Pitt vs. Virginia matchup

Jerry DiPaola
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Virginia safety Quin Blanding (3) wraps up Boston College running back Travis Levy (35) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Four games shouldn’t define a season, but that might be the case for Pitt as it starts the stretch run Saturday against Virginia at Heinz Field.

Pitt (3-5, 1-3 ACC) won’t win the Coastal Division, but it can salvage its season by playing three of the contenders, maybe beating one or two of them and putting its stamp on the title chase.

After facing Virginia (5-2, 2-1), Pitt is off next week before playing struggling North Carolina on a prime-time ESPN telecast Nov. 9.

After that, it’s No. 13 Virginia Tech and No. 8 Miami, the chief contenders (along with Virginia and Georgia Tech) for the right to represent the Coastal in the ACC championship game.

The opportunity exists for a young, developing team to regain respectability and turn the page to 2018 when, suddenly, Pitt will have a team full of seasoned veterans.

Here are five storylines to watch during Saturday’s game:

Bowl watch

Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi and Virginia’s Bronco Mendenhall agree: Forget about the postseason and focus on the present

Needing only one victory to reach the mandated six for a bowl game, Virginia lost by 31 points last week to Boston College. And that was a home game.

None of Virginia’s players have been to a bowl, so you wonder how they’re handling the pressure.

Pitt’s margin for error is so small, it hardly is worth discussing. But this team doesn’t want to leave a legacy of being the first in a decade to stay home during bowl season.

It will be interesting to see which team buckles first under the weight of their expectations.

The Blanding/Kiser effect

Safety Quin Blanding and linebacker Micah Kiser of Virginia always are around the ball and among the best players in the ACC at their positions. How does Pitt prevent those players from dominating the game?

To Narduzzi, it’s as easy as execution. But that involves more than just running the play properly after the ball is snapped.

The onus falls on sophomore quarterback Ben DiNucci to read the defense before the snap and direct traffic accordingly. Make sure someone accounts for the blitzing linebacker. Freeze the safety by looking one way, throwing another.

“You’ve got to do a pretty good job of knowing where they are and what they’re doing,” Narduzzi said.

Is that too much to ask of an inexperienced quarterback? Some coaches would say yes. DiNucci is making only his fourth collegiate start.

But he has an Ivy League-type learning capacity — he was accepted to Penn out of high school — and seems to be playing with increased understanding and confidence.

If Blanding and Kiser are neutralized, Pitt will win.

Senior moments

Pitt doesn’t have many seniors, but there are enough in key positions to make a difference at important junctures of the game.

One of those moments occurred last week at Duke when senior wide receiver Jester Weah wrestled an interception away from cornerback Mark Gilbert.

Maybe Saturday it will be punter Ryan Winslow repeatedly putting Virginia in poor field position. Or offensive right tackle Jaryd Jones-Smith keeping DiNucci upright.

With senior cornerback Avonte Maddox out with an arm injury, someone needs to assume the mantle of leadership.

Stay on the run

Victory is so much easier to attain when the running game moves the chains, keeps the defense off the field and scores points. All three occurred in the victory at Duke.

Virginia’s run defense is only ninth in the ACC (156.4 yards per game), and it allows 4.2 yards per carry. Pitt needs to, at least, match those benchmarks.

If Darrin Hall can get half as many yards as he did last week (254), he will become DiNucci’s best friend. Narduzzi doesn’t want to ask his young quarterback to win the game with his arm.

Putting it on the line

Four of Pitt’s five starting offensive linemen have been in school together since 2014. The newcomer is center Jimmy Morrissey, who gets the difficult task of keeping Virginia nose tackle Eli Hanback in check.

Hanback (6-foot-4, 300 pounds) is a converted defensive end, so his athleticism could be a problem.

“He’ll get some help from his guards at times, but Jimmy’s got to hold up at the center spot,” Narduzzi said. “It will be a challenge for him. Jimmy can handle it. We can’t have a nose tackle disrupt our run game.”

Virginia plays a 3-4 defense, which Pitt doesn’t see often. Rice plays a 3-4, and Pitt won that game earlier this season, 42-10. But the Panthers ran for only 69 yards.

A warning? Coincidence? Just askin’.

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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