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Pitt rides banged-up defense to win over Virginia

| Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016, 4:24 p.m.
Pitt running back James Conner leaps over the Virginia defensive line for a touchdown during the first half Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016, in Charlottesville, Va.
Virginia free safety Quin Blanding (3) tackles Pitt fullback George Aston (35) during the second half Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016 in Charlottesville, Va.
Pitt quarterback Nathan Peterman (4) throws a shovel pass for a touchdown during the second half against Virginia on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016 in Charlottesville, Va.
Pitt fullback George Aston celebrates a touchdown against Virginia on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016, in Charlottesville, Va.
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Pitt wide receiver Tre Tipton runs the ball against Virginia on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016 in Charlottesville, Va.
Pitt defensive back Terrish Webb (2) disrupts a pass intended for Virginia wide receiver Keeon Johnson (8) during the first half Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016 in Charlottesville, Va.
Pitt quarterback Nathan Peterman (4) is pressured by Virginia inside linebacker Zach Bradshaw (51) during the first half Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016 in Charlottesville, Va.
Virginia strong safety Kelvin Rainey (38) is penalized for a face mask on Pitt wide receiver Quadree Henderson (10) during the first half Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016 in Charlottesville, Va.
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Pitt running back James Conner (24) is lifted by teammate offensive lineman Adam Bisnowaty (69) against Virginia on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016 in Charlottesville, Va.
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Pitt tight end Scott Orndoff (83) wrestles with Virginia safety Quin Blanding on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016 in Charlottesville, Va.
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Pitt tight end Jaymar Parrish stretches for the ball against Virginia on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016 in Charlottesville, Va.
Pittsburgh linebacker Bam Bradley (4) pressures Virginia quarterback Kurt Benkert (6) during the second half of an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016 in Charlottesville, Va. (Ryan M. Kelly/The Daily Progress via AP)

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — One by one, Pitt players fell or were shoved to the ground, heads ringing, limbs aching, feet moving so slowly they barely made it to the sideline without help.

Yet, somehow, with a roster that still needs plenty of replenishment into the future, Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi found a way to fill in the blanks and defeat Virginia, 45-31, on Saturday in front of 39,522 people at Scott Stadium.

“I don't know if we wore them down,” Narduzzi said after his team allowed a mere field goal after halftime. “We are little worn down ourselves.

“We knew we just had to keep pedaling uphill.”

Pitt (5-2, 2-1 ACC) entered the game without four defensive players who began the season as starters — defensive end Dewayne Hendrix, linebackers Mike Caprara and Elijah Zeise and cornerback Avonte Maddox.

Then, ACC Defensive Player of the Year candidate Ejuan Price, linebacker Quintin Wirginis and free safety Terrish Webb went down and missed significant moments. For the most part, nothing changed, especially in the second half.

• Sophomore Phillipie Motley filled in nicely for Maddox (arm), recording one of Pitt's four pass breakups. Playing Motley also preserved a redshirt for freshman cornerbacks and playing-time candidates Damar Hamlin and Therran Coleman.

• Defensive end Rori Blair, who has played most of the season for Hendrix, recorded two sacks.

• Reggie Mitchell backed up Webb and broke up a pass.

• Bam Bradley, standing in for Caprara, chased down Virginia quarterback Kurt Benkert for a 15-yard loss during one four-snap stretch during which Pitt had three sacks.

Finally, the maligned defense played a big part in a victory that keeps Pitt's championship hopes alive in the ACC Coastal. Pitt arrived home Saturday night tied for second in the division with Virginia Tech (their next opponent Oct. 27) and one-half game behind North Carolina.

“It was a mentality,” senior nose tackle Tyrique Jarrett said of the team's second-half recovery. “We sat back during halftime (after allowing four touchdowns in the first half) and talked about it.

“We corrected the mistakes. We just attacked it different.”

No strategic details were revealed, of course, but Pitt appeared to increase the pressure on Benkert, who kept attacking the secondary with deep throws and coming up with little or nothing. He completed only 20 of 45 pass attempts for 278 yards.

Other than a 74-yard touchdown pass to Olamide Zaccheaus and a 44-yard scoring run by Taquan Mizzell, Virginia had little success on offense. The Cavaliers amassed 270 yards in the first half and only 108 after intermission.

“Those two plays, you take them away and you are pretty happy with the entire effort,” Narduzzi said. “We paid attention to details in the second half.”

Even Virginia's first touchdown in the first quarter was set up by two Pitt penalties committed while Virginia was trying to punt.

Although Pitt scored 45 points on six touchdowns and Chris Blewitt's 25-yard field goal, the game did not represent the offense's finest effort.

Safety Jordan Whitehead returned an interception 59 yards just before halftime to give Pitt its first lead, 35-28. Quadree Henderson returned a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown, his second of the season and third in the past eight games. Returner Rafael Araujo-Lopes's 69-yard return gave the offense a short field for one of James' Conner two 1-yard scoring bursts.

Conner, however, was at his near-best, rushing 20 times for 90 yards — his best game in a month. But quarterback Nathan Peterman barely completed half of his passes — 11 for 21 — for only 137 yards.

Narduzzi was willing to overlook such things because of the decisive nature of the second half. Plus, he knows the upcoming off week could help.

But his quest for consistency, if not perfection, continues.

“We still have a ways to go. We are looking for excellence,” he said.

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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