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After back-to-back losses, Virginia turns attention to high-stakes matchups with Pitt and Virginia Tech

After back-to-back losses, Virginia turns attention to high-stakes matchups with Pitt and Virginia Tech

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Consecutive losses in November might dishearten many college football programs, but Virginia can’t let its recent setbacks obscure what is still on the line over the next two Saturdays.

Victories in this week’s trip to No. 20 Pittsburgh as well as in the Commonwealth Cup against rival Virginia Tech on Nov. 27 would give UVa the Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division crown.

“As you really consider where we are,” sixth-year Cavaliers coach Bronco Mendenhall said Monday during his weekly press conference, “I don’t think there’s a chance for two games to be more meaningful for a season and to our team than these two with the implications, which is a Coastal championship, a state championship and then anything that would come after the results of these two.”

Said UVa sophomore linebacker Josh Ahern: “Coach Mendenhall has been framing it, [on Monday] morning, that all of our goals from the beginning of the year are still up in the air and it’s up to us because we still have the power to control what we want to control.”

In nonconference losses to top-25 opponents BYU and Notre Dame, the Cavaliers learned enough about themselves to fix any issues and be better prepared for Pittsburgh, Mendenhall said.

The Panthers are second nationally in total offense (531.3 yards per game) and fourth in scoring (43.5 points per game) with Heisman Trophy contender Kenny Pickett leading the offense at quarterback.

UVa gave up 734 total yards in its 66-49 loss on Oct. 30 to the Cougars and then managed only a field goal in its 28-3 defeat against the Irish this past Saturday.

“We had weaknesses exposed at a high level defensively at BYU,” Mendenhall said, “but responded really well I thought [against] Notre Dame, made some corrections needed. Offensively, we saw Jay [Woolfolk] now as our backup quarterback becoming our starter, where he is and what that looks like now, which is great information going into the finish of the Coastal [Division].”

Woolfolk filled in against Notre Dame for injured standout Brennan Armstrong (ribs), and Mendenhall said he is “hopeful” Armstrong will do more in practice this week than last.

“I haven’t seen Brennan yet today,” Mendenhall said of Armstrong’s status. “I’m praying more it’s second-to-second rather than day-to-day.”

With or without Armstrong, what’s at stake doesn’t change. Mendenhall said if Woolfolk starts again, then UVa must be better around the freshman than it was versus Notre Dame.

Woolfolk finished 18-of-33 for 196 yards and two interceptions in his starting debut. He was sacked seven times. The 196 yards through the air were the fewest in any game for UVa this fall.

“It doesn’t change at all,” sophomore wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks said about preparing with an unclear quarterback situation. “It’s just me knowing I got to step up even more because we have to be able to throw and catch the ball to help the team out, help the defense out because I feel like they played a great game on Saturday to keep [Notre Dame] to 28 points.”

The Cavaliers captured the Coastal Division title in 2019 and advanced to the ACC championship game where they lost to Atlantic Division champ Clemson, which went on to reach the College Football Playoff national title game.

Currently, Wake Forest leads the Atlantic Division and controls its fate with games against Clemson and Boston College remaining.

“I feel like really we all know we have the Coastal in our hands,” Wicks said. “It’s on us to go out and take that on Saturday. It’s exciting for all of us, knowing that we can get back to the ACC championship and even win it this year. It’s up for grabs and we’re working to do that.”

Mendenhall said he prioritizes taking the division.

“You can’t put more emphasis on it than we have,” Mendenhall said. “That’s the expectation that I have for our program that we’re the Coastal champion every year. We were the defending champion going into COVID and coming out of it, we want to repeat. We have every chance to do that with two Coastal games remaining. I like that opportunity and I like how hard the program has worked to earn that chance.”

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