LOUISVILLE CARDINALS (5-4, 2-4) vs. VIRGINIA CAVALIERS (6-3, 3-2)
Game Time: 3:30 p.m.
Location: Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium: Louisville, Ky.
Announcers: Mike Corey (play-by-play) and Rene Ingoglia (color)
Favorite: Louisville by 12
All-Time Series: Louisville leads 3-2
Last Meeting: Louisville won 32-25 on Oct. 29, 2016 in Charlottesville
Virginia enters this weekend’s game already bowl eligible despite having an offense that struggles in a lot of ways. Bronco Mendenhall brought a defensive background to UVA so it’s not out of the ordinary that his offense has issues. What is unexpected is the way that they absorb those deficiencies and still score points. Virginia has one of the worst statistical offenses in the country. They don’t run the ball well. They’re 6.1 average yards per pass attempt is one of the lowest numbers in the country. They also only average about five yards per play. Yet, they put up 26 points per game and they’ve done a lot of the “little things” to get to six wins.
Kurt Benkert was a liability at quarterback last year when he threw 11 interceptions and often struggled with his accuracy. This year hasn’t been a completely different year, but he has all but fixed his interception issue and he’s been more consistent throwing the ball downfield. I think both of those things have helped to open up the offense for him a bit. UVA has also gotten away from throwing the ball to their running back every other play, which has really made defenses defend the entire field.
I don’t think I’ve watched a quarterback so far this year that throws the deep ball as well as Benkert. He had three long touchdown passes last week where he dropped the ball in the bucket on go routes down the sideline. That was his fifth game this year with 3 touchdown passes. Virginia mixes in their deep passes pretty well with their nonstop short passes. It makes it hard to blitz them because they can get rid of the ball so quickly. That also means that the line can provide plenty of time for Benkert to deliver those deep throws.
The running game for the Hoos is pretty bad to be blunt. Jordan Ellis is averaging 4.2 yards per carry but they don’t have another guy to help spell him throughout the game. Ellis also doesn’t have great speed so they can’t use him outside like they would like to at times. Where he is at his best, however, is between the tackles. He actually is a true power runner that hits the hole hard and drives tacklers backwards. Virginia doesn’t rely on the run much but it would go a long way for Louisville to stuff the run and get them in long yardage situations.
Just like Wake Forest, UVA has seen a good improvement from their receivers. The numbers aren’t as staggering in their difference, but the versatility is evident. Olamide Zaccheaus has become the focal point of the passing game after being a guy that could sometimes make a play for you and sometimes disappear. He is a similar player to Greg Dortch who just torched UofL two weeks ago. He’s more quick than fast and they really like to get him the ball in space and let him work. Louisville will also have to account for Zaccheaus on jet sweeps and other plays where he gets the ball while on the move.
The outside receivers for UVA are two of the best that they will face this season. Doni Dowlingand Andre Levrone are both over 220 pounds and they are really good when it comes to catching those deep passes down the sideline. Dowling and Levrone both create matchup issues for Louisville because of their size and also their experience. Both of these guys are seniors that just know how to get open. They create separation with subtle hand fighting and they use their reach to get to the ball so that defensive backs have a harder time getting to it.
Dowling and Levrone remind me a lot of Kelvin Harmon and Stephen Louis of NC State. I could see them having big games like those two did. They just know how to separate and they have really good ball tracking ability. Another guy that could be a big factor is Evan Butts at tight end. Butts is extremely reliable in the short to intermediate game and he does a really good job of finding soft spots in the zone and giving a big target. He’s not likely to break a big play or anything but he blocks extremely well in their run game and gives Benkert an option in the middle of the field.
The Virginia offensive line is kind of hard to figure out. The running game struggles a good amount because the holes aren’t there, but it feels like they are when you watch them over a full game. The Hoos rank 111th in opportunity rate which measures how often the line provides 5 yards of space for a runner. So, obviously the holes aren’t there and Ellis isn’t the type of guy that’s going to overcome that.
The pass protection is pretty strong for UVA. Benkert has been sacked 17 times but his sack rate is only 5%. They drop back to pass a lot so those 17 sacks are a little misleading. For context, Lamar Jackson’s sack rate is 5.8% and we all know how much UofL passes the ball as well as how many times he’s been sacked. Benkert isn’t a statue but he also isn’t the most mobile guy in the world so some of the sacks he’s taken have been due to him not being able to avoid the rush. UVA also runs a lot of plays where every receiver is running a short route. When they’re all covered it puts him in a bad spot and he ends up without any options down the field.
Virginia hired Bronco Mendenhall because he can not only coach defense at a high level. He can also motivate his players to play at a level above themselves. Virginia’s defense plays so hard that it’s genuinely fun to watch. They always get four or five guys to the ball. When they make a play they celebrate like it was the first time they’ve ever made a big play, too. The best thing about college sports is watching young men and women have a ton of fun playing the game and giving their full effort. UVA does that and they’ve gone from 2-10 to six wins and a bowl game in one year. Bronco deserves a lot of credit for getting them to that point.
The defense is what leads this team even though the offense has made a lot of big plays in their wins. Mike London did a pretty good job of recruiting on defense even though his recruiting didn’t translate into wins. Bronco came in and took what he had and put his best guys on the field. He didn’t shy away from playing young guys if they were his best option. That’s helped him this year as he only has three seniors in his two-deep.
The defensive line is a strong unit for the Hoos with former 5-star Andrew Brown leading the way at left end. Brown has the size of a defensive tackle but he’s plenty quick enough to play end in their 3-4. While Brown gets the attention, Eli Hanback is the guy that stood out to me at nose tackle. Hanback is big at 305 pounds but he moves extremely well and he’s extremely disruptive. For the last few years we all watched DeAngelo Brown blow up plays and allow other guys to make plays. Hanbeck does the same thing but he gets in on a lot of tackles also.
UVA is really good against the pass but they do have some struggles versus the run. Teams run the ball a lot more than they pass against them but they’re about average when it come to yards per carry. The linebackers haven’t been as good as you might want at filling holes and stuffing run plays. Run stuffs is a stat that I’ve really relied on a lot this year and I expected UVA to have a ton of them from linebackers with how much teams are running the ball. That’s not the case with UofL actually having better numbers between Stacy Thomas (who has missed multiple games), James Hearns, and Trevon Young all having more runs stuffs than the top UVA player.
Micah Kiser is one of my favorite players in the country for some of the things he does off the field but he’s one of the best linebackers in the country, also. Kiser might not be a high draft pick next year but he’s exactly what you want for your team. He’s super productive and he makes the type of impact plays that you need from the leader of your defense. Kiser is on pace for double digit tackles for loss for the third straight year and he should end up with well over 100 tackles again. He just makes plays and he should be a guy Louisville looks to scheme for.
Louisville really has to be on the lookout for Chris Peace at the weakside outside linebacker spot. UVA runs a true 3-4 and Peace leads the team in tackles for loss on the season. Jordan Mack is the embodiment of everything you read in the first paragraph. Mack came in as a freshman last year and he was given the opportunity to play. This season he’s been the exact player they’ve needed to turn the corner on defense. Mack plays full speed on every play and does all of those things that don’t show up on the stat sheet that you absolutely need guys to do. Mack is also a good example of a guy who acts before he thinks but still stays within the scheme. It’s something UofL has lacked this year with guys being a step or two slow all the time because they’re instincts aren’t there yet.
I was really impressed with the secondary for UVA when I watched their games. They play the ball very well and they really get after it in run support. Juan Thornhill is a converted safety but he stands out as the best cover guy even though he’s their number two corner. Thornhill and Bryce hall have 17 PBUs between them and that close coverage they provide also helps them curb big plays after the catch. Louisville kinda forces you to play zone because Lamar Jacksoncan take off at any moment, but Mendenhall might just go the other route and bring a bunch of pressure instead. That would put these guys in man coverage and they have held their own this year.
The safety spots are where UVA is at their best in my opinion. Brenton Nelson has been a revelation at strong safety as a freshman and he plays the game like Jordan Mack does. It’s a million miles an hour for Nelson and he has made a lot of plays for this defense. He has four interceptions on the season and he gets in on a lot of tackles.
Quin Blanding is the star for Virginia’s defense. This is the fourth year that I’ve written about Blanding and I can’t think of a more consistent player in the country over those four years. He should end up with his fourth straight year with 100 plus tackles and this year he is making more plays in the box. Lamar hasn’t been slowed down much this year but if Mendenhall does elect to bring a lot of pressure I think that Blanding could be a big factor when it comes to containing Lamar if he gets out of the pocket or breaks free on a read option run. Wake Forest had some success with Jessie Bates playing inside to outside and chasing Lamar down. I could see Blanding doing the same.
Excitement Level: 3.2
I’m here for Lamar and my season-ticket investment.
Game Attire: Black U of L columbia jacket over lots of stuff, grey Cardinal bird hat
The first cold game of the year is always the worst cold game of the year.
Pregame Meal: Beer, barbecue
I’m doing the pregame show on 790 again and we’re over at the Petrino Family Foundation tailgate where I’m told there will be both barbecue and beer.
Bold Prediction: Louisville returns an interception for a touchdown
Kurt Benkert gets a littttle loose with a sideline throw.
Zykiesis Cannon Interception Alert Level: Light Chrome Green (don’t think it’s happening this year)
Predicted Star of the Game: Lamar Jackson
Back to the well after too many weeks away.
—A win would make Louisville bowl eligible for the eighth straight season and the 17th time in the last 20 seasons.
—At 6-3, Virginia is bowl eligible for the first time since 2011.
—Louisville is 9-0 in ESPNU home games that don’t start at noon.
—Under Bobby Petrino, Louisville is 12-1 in November home games.
—With 192 passing yards, Lamar Jackson will become the first player in college football history to throw for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons.
—Jackson leads the nation in total offense at 426.3 yards per game, 47.8 yards more than the next highest player.
—All five games in the series between Louisville and Virginia have been decided by a touchdown or less.
— FS Quin Blanding is UVA’s all-time tackle leader with 445 career stops. He currently ranks No. 20 all-time in ACC history in tackles and needs 22 tackles to pass UNC’s Dexter Reid (2000-03) for the most career tackles in ACC history by a defensive back. Reid is currently No. 14 all-time in the ACC in career tackles with 466.
—Virginia inside linebacker Micah Kiser enters the game leading the ACC with 10.8 stops per game, which also ranks sixth nationally. He sacked Jackson twice last year and had a game-high 14 tackles, with three for loss.
—Louisville is currently riding a consecutive game scoring streak that spans 221 games dating back to the 2000 season. The streak ranks as the third longest in the ACC behind only Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech.
—Louisville is 180-12 all-time when scoring 35 or more points in a game. The Cards are also 5-106 all-time when allowing opponents to score 40 or more points.
—“Obviously, we’d have liked to have been in the running for the conference championship. But right now it’s about just winning football games and the seniors understanding that they don’t have a lot left.” —Bobby Petrino
—“If anything, it makes us even more hungry for more success. Because why stop now? That’s the mindset: Now that we’re bowl-game-eligible, let’s keep it going. Let’s keep this train moving.” —Virginia DE Andrew Brown
—”What he’s done is just tried to work harder and encourage more and practice harder on the practice field. Lamar has had a great year. Some of the things he’s done, been able to do, throwing the football, running the football. I just wish we could have won more games so he would be getting the credit that he deserves.” —Bobby Petrino
—“Our goal is to win the Coastal. But at the end of the day, we’re finally going bowling, so that’s sweet.” —Virginia LB Micah Kiser
—“Last year, I think we played a better team just overall. They’ve been having a lot of problems, issues through the season. I think we’re going in confident off a big win, and they’re going to have some fight in them, too. … I really think our matchups are better this year than they were last year, so we should come out on top.” —Virginia WR Doni Dowling
Card Chronicle Prediction: Louisville 41, Virginia 37