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 Dowling and 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.