Pitt football--Virginia preview

The University of Pittsburgh will open its season against the Virginia Cavaliers on Saturday (9/2) night at Heinz Field. PantherDigest.com senior writer Dale Grdnic has put together a solid preview of this critical game.

Pitt football--Virginia preview

PITTSBURGH -- University of Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt waited about a half-season for his first offense to click, and the Panthers finally started to have some success in the homestretch last fall.

If it was easy for Pitt just to pick up from there, the Panthers would have no problems against Virginia Saturday night at 7 at Heinz Field, but Wannstedt knows it's going to take this team time to jell as well.

"It's a work in progress, but we have a real clear picture of where we're going and what we're going to become,'' Wannstedt said. "But it doesn't happen overnight, and it takes time.

"But if you were to call our players in and ask them what the foundation and philosophy of this team is, man for man, they would know. And that's the starting point ... that everybody understands what you're trying to do and how you're going to go about it.''

The transition could have begun with an easier opponent than Virginia. The Cavaliers are picked to finish in the middle among the teams in the ACC Coastal Division, but they'll be a good test for the young Panthers.

"I think everybody knows that Virginia is a very talented team,'' Wannstedt said. "They did graduate some people, but all you have to do is go back to their recruiting manuals to see that they've come into Pennsylvania and have gotten a few kids the past three or four years.

"They're well-coached, and their philosophy is something that we are attempting to do. They're a physical football team. They run the ball. They make big plays with their wideouts. On defense, they mix in the three-four and four-three and do some blitzing similar to what Al did with the Jets.''

Virginia coach Al Groh squared off against Wannstedt several times as head coaches, as well as when he was with Bill Parcells and Wannstedt was with Jimmy Johnson, and he recalled his last visit to Pittsburgh for a Steelers-Patriots game at Heinz Field.

"It was pretty cold that night,'' Groh said. "I think it was minus-2 (degrees) wind chill. ... It's a great football city. It has been for a long time. It's probably one of the best football cities in the country. They understand it and are intense about it. They're very rabid in the following of their teams, so that adds something to it.

"We're going to a big-time football stadium. In a real football city against a school with a very rich football tradition. I think they have (nine) national championships in their heritage. They're going to honor one of their championship teams in this game, so it's got all the makings of a pretty good challenging environment to bring some of these guys into.''

The Panthers will honor their 1976 national championship team on its 30th anniversary at halftime, and several former players from that team talked to the current squad this week and will again before the game.

Pitt offensive line coach Charlie Partridge likened Virginia to Rutgers. Both are power running teams, but the Cavaliers have a new quarterback in Christian Olsen and new back in Jason Snelling. Olsen played in three games last fall, while Snelling was the No. 2 rusher with 325 yards and two TDs.

Defensively, Virginia is strong up front with lineman Chris Long, Howie's son, who had 22 solo tackles and 10 for losses last season. The Cavs' best player could be cornerback Marcus Hamilton with 63 total tackles, 46 solo, six interceptions and seven passes defended.

"We've looked at them all summer, and we're sick of watching their film,'' Palko said. "They're a three-four (defensive) team. ... They pressure. They play zone, and they mix up their fronts. They're very good. They're most experienced position is the secondary with Hamilton at cornerback.''

Pitt's offensive line is practically light years ahead of where it was last year at this time with four returning starters in center Joe Villani, guards John Simonitis and C.J. Davis and right tackle Mike McGlynn. Left tackle Jeff Otah is new to the group, but the biggest at 6-foot-6, 340 pounds.

"With four guys coming back on the offensive line, I think our comfort level is way higher than last season,'' Villani said. "We're just trying to pull (Otah) into the mix. ... I think we're ready to take our game to the next level. It all starts up front with us on offense, and we're ready for the challenge.''

Notes: The Pitt-Virginia game will be nationally televised by ESPNU with Mike Adamle (play-by-play), David Diaz-Infante (color) and Quint Kessenich (sideline). ... The Pittsburgh ISP Sports Network will also provide

Our thoughts and prayers go to the family and friends of Pittsburgh Mayor Bob O'Connor. The staff of the PantherDigest.com was deeply saddened to hear of his passing on Friday night. The City of Pittsburgh lost a life long resident and passionate leader.

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