Virginia made a defensive hire when they landed Bronco Mendenhall and that decision has paid off well. While they had the talent on defense under Mike London, they never really stopped anyone. Now they’re able to do more with less and Mendenhall has done a great job of finding guys that fit what they do. The Cavs do a good job of making it tough to run on them and then they turn long third down plays into a show by bringing pressure from all over the place. Louisville will have to find a way to get the running game going so that they can avoid the unique pressures UVA brings.
There’s no bigger area where you see guys fit than up front for UVA. They run a traditional 3-4 which requires some disruptive linemen who can eat up blocks. These guys do just that and they’re now pretty deep at the position. Eli Hanbeck is the veteran of the group but true freshman Jowon Briggs might be the most talented guy in the group. These guys do such a great job of eating up blockers and letting their linebackers run free. The outside zone runs from Louisville will be a play to watch this week. These guys are big but not overly agile. But if they can be disruptive, the linebackers will have a clear path to the running backs.
The Virginia linebackers are the best group on this defense. The defense is designed that way but they also take full advantage with great speed as a group. Jordan Mack is the key guy in the middle. He leads the team in tackles for loss as well as sacks. To me, he’s a good mix of Max Richardson of BC and Justin Strnad of Wake Forest. He can do a lot of things well because he can run, but he’s better than both of those guys in terms of being a complete player. It doesn’t hurt that he gets so much help from the guys in front of him. Louisville will have to account for him against the run. He makes the types of plays that this blocking scheme is susceptible to.
Zane Zandier has stepped up his game this year and become a very good inside linebacker for this team. He makes a ton of tackles and also creates some negative plays. As a tandem, Zandier and Mack make it really hard to run the football inside or outside the tackles. They cover a lot of ground. Charles Snowden had a breakout game last year against Louisville and he’s become one of the key players on the defense this season. Snowden is 6-7/235 and he plays the strongside outside linebacker spot that lines up to the boundary side. I think that could be good for Louisville as he can use his length to set the edge. Louisville can look to run away from him to the wide side of the field and hope to use their speed in space.
Virginia will be without Bryce Hall who is arguably the best cornerback in the ACC. Hall broke his ankle a couple of weeks ago and UVA is now down to a former safety in Devonte Cross at one of their corner spots. The Hoos lost projected starter Darius Bratton before the season started so they’re technically down to two backups right now. Nick Grant has been solid for UVA but this is the weak spot for this defense. Cross and Grant have been aided by a great pass rush. Louisville needs to be able to protect their quarterbacks this week and test these outside corners.
Brenton Nelson and Joey Blount are back at their safety spots this year and they’re just as solid as ever. Blount leads the team in tackles and interceptions. Nelson hasn’t made an impact on the stat sheet but he allows this defense to do a lot of things because of his experience. I’ve seen him blitz from different areas as well as cover slot guys. This will be the first game since Notre Dame where I don’t don’t think that Louisville will have an advantage of some sort in the middle of the field. These guys can run well and make plays on the football.
Virginia’s defense is obviously better than BC or Wake, but I do think that Louisville can find success if they run the ball well. They live off of negative plays and getting teams into long yardage situations. That’s when they can get their pressures going and it’s hard to stop this pass rush when they have the advantage. Being able to utilize the play action protections that we’ve seen this season will be key. Louisville has the receivers to beat this secondary but they have to have time to get open.