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September 2, 2006

Pitt beats UVA behind Palko's performance

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PITTSBURGH -Tyler Palko threw a pair of first-down touchdown passes longer than 70 yards and Pittsburgh got off to the kind of strong start in coach Dave Wannstedt's second season that it wanted in its first, routing Virginia 38-13 Saturday night.

Palko, in his third season at quarterback but teamed with an almost-new cast of receivers, played a near-perfect game except for an interception that was returned 47 yards by Nate Lyles to set up Virginia's only touchdown. Palko finished 17 of 22 for 283 yards with three touchdowns, including a 72-yarder to Oderick Turner and a 78-yarder to Derek Kinder.

Palko showed off a deep passing game that Pitt lacked last season while going 5-6. The Panthers started the season in the Top 25, only to be routed at home by Notre Dame 42-21 in their opener en route to an 0-3 start.

This debut game was nearly the opposite, except that Pitt also began it with an opening-drive touchdown, just as it did the Notre Dame loss. Palko found Turner for 20 yards on Pitt's initial third-down play of the season. That led to Palko's 1-yard scoring flip to Darrell Strong on a misdirection play that found Palko and Strong wide open by themselves on the left side of the field. Palko, who followed up an excellent sophomore season with a good but not great junior year, hit on the first deep throw he attempted, finding Turner open down the middle on a 72-yard scoring pass midway through the second quarter.

There was a Fighting Irish connection in this game, too, as Christian Olsen debuted as Virginia's quarterback four years after transferring from Notre Dame. Olsen, a senior, had a rough debut as he could never get into a rhythm with his receivers in a Cavaliers offense that produced only two field goals and the interception-created touchdown.

Olsen was intercepted himself for a score, by Darrelle Revis for 19 yards midway through the third quarter to make it 24-10, and so was his replacement. Kevin McCabe came in late in the fourth quarter and immediately was intercepted by Clint Session for a 78-yard scoring return during Pitt's ninth opening-game victory in its last 10.

Virginia coach Al Groh has called it a rebuilding season for his team, which is coming off a 7-5 season that was considered disappointing, but no doubt even he didn't know that competing with Pitt would be so difficult. The Panthers have questionable depth at running back, wide receiver and kicker but displayed none of those weaknesses during a solid start-to-finish opener.

Pitt's receiving group was a major unknown after losing top receiver Greg Lee, who left after his junior season but was not drafted. None of Pitt's returning receivers had as many as 40 catches last season, but Turner made two catches for 92 yards and Kinder had four.

Pitt had a ceremony honoring the 30th anniversary of its unbeaten 1976 national championship team led by Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett, who attended the game.

For more coverage of the Pittsburgh Panthers, check out PantherLair.com and for more coverage of the Virginia Cavaliers, check out CavsCorner.com.

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