CHARLOTTESVILLE — The Virginia football team’s pursuit of its longest winning streak in five years ended Saturday when Pittsburgh took the game’s only turnover into the end zone late in the first half and added an insurance touchdown in the fourth quarter, sending the Cavaliers to a 45-31 loss at Scott Stadium.
Virginia had been seeking a third consecutive triumph, but the Panthers all but secured the outcome when fullback George Aston collected a five-yard shovel pass from quarterback Nate Peterman for a 42-28 lead with 9:47 left in the game.
The Cavaliers’ only points in the second half came on Sam Hayward’s 36-yard field goal in front of an announced homecoming crowd of 39,522.
Coming off a bye week, Virginia permitted 209 rushing yards, including 132 in the second half, committed 10 penalties for 67 yards and surrendered 480 yards and a touchdown on eight kickoff returns. Quarterback Kurt Benkert was sacked four times, all in the second half, and finished 20 for 44 for 278 yards with one touchdown and a costly interception.
“A lot to learn, a lot to grow from,” said Bronco Mendenhall, Virginia’s first-year coach. “I certainly anticipated and believed it could have been a different result, but they executed better than we did, and that’s reflective of how they were prepared.”
Virginia (2-4, 1-1 ACC) headed into halftime trailing 35-28 after the Panthers (5-2, 2-1) scored two touchdowns in 36 seconds. The first was a one-yard run by tailback James Conner to complete a nine-play drive covering 26 yards. The Panthers had a short field with which to operate following Rafael Araujo-Lopes’s 69-yard kickoff return. The Cavaliers also committed pass interference and face-mask penalties.
Benkert then proceeded to throw his seventh interception of the year on Virginia’s ensuing possession, with safety Jordan Whitehead returning it 59 yards for a touchdown with four seconds to play. It was the first interception of the season for the 2015 ACC defensive rookie of the year.
“Just made a bad throw,” Benkert said. “Obviously I had a turnover that turned into points because of it.”
The first possession of the second quarter belonged to Pittsburgh, which marched 74 yards on 10 plays capped by Conner’s one-yard leap to tie the game at 21 with 9:08 to go until halftime. The Panthers benefited from a pass interference call against cornerback Bryce Hall as well as wide receiver Quadree Henderson falling on a fumble by teammate Tre Tipton.
The first quarter included three touchdowns in 63 seconds, with Virginia taking a 21-14 lead on a 74-yard pass from Benkert to wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus. That scoring play came on the series immediately following Henderson’s 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown that drew the Panthers even. The sophomore has three kickoff returns for touchdowns in his past eight games.
“Obviously a great road win and long overdue,” Panthers Coach Pat Narduzzi said. “I challenged our guys to be road warriors and to come here and finish the game off on the road against a good football team that has a lot of skill and is well coached. I am very proud of them.”
Spotty coverage on the part of Hall allowed the Panthers to tie the score at 7 courtesy of a 38-yard touchdown pass from Peterman to wide receiver Jester Weah. Hall was several steps late trying to defend the pass, and Weah broke away from the tackle attempt to score his team-leading fourth touchdown this season.
The Cavaliers struck first on the opening drive of the game, getting Albert Reid’s five-yard touchdown run with 10:31 to go in the first quarter. Reid’s fourth touchdown of the season came on third and goal to conclude a possession on which Pittsburgh committed three penalties, including consecutive infractions with Virginia preparing to punt.
“I just give credit to Pitt,” said Cavaliers running back Taquan Mizzell, who had 95 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries and three catches for 15 yards. “Overall they just did a good job. We came out hot in the first half. We just couldn’t keep up the momentum.”