Three-List Game Preview: Virginia Football Travels To Louisville

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Micah Kiser sacked Lamar Jackson twice in Scott Stadium last season. Virginia football’s defense hopes to fluster the talented QB again this year. ~ Photo by Michael Ingalls

Virginia football takes the field on Saturday, November 11, bowl eligible for the first time since 2011. The Cavaliers’ opponent is the Lamar Jackson-led Louisville Cardinals, who, at 5-4, are looking to become bowl eligible themselves.

Louisville has a 2-1 series edge over Virginia since the two schools started competing as Atlantic Coast Conference foes in 2014. The two schools have met a total of five times with the Cardinals holding a 3-2 advantage all-time. All five games have been decided by seven points or less.

UVA downed Louisville, 23-21, in 2014, but the Cardinals won at home 38-31 in 2015 before escaping Scott Stadium with a 32-25 victory last year. All three games have been competitive, but last season’s product was outstanding. Virginia played well and grabbed a 25-24 advantage over Louisville with less than two minutes in the game thanks to Kurt Benkert’s 4-yard touchdown pass to Doni Dowling and subsequent 2-point conversion to Albert Reid.

Jackson, the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner, shined on Louisville’s last drive, converting a key fourth down pass through the outstretched arms of Cavalier linebacker Micah Kiser before hitting receiver Jaylen Smith for the game-winning touchdown with 13 second left.

Jackson threw for 361 yards and four touchdowns while rushing for 88 yards. He was sacked five times and intercepted once by a game Virginia defense, though. Benkert passed for 238 yards with three touchdowns and two picks.

While Louisville isn’t as complete a team as it was last season, Jackson and the Cardinal offense remain potent. In fact, Bobby Petrino’s offense has scored less than 30 points only twice this season while averaging 36.7 points per game. The dual-threat Jackson is as dangerous as ever, leading the nation in total offense per game (426.3 yards per game).

“Any play can go the whole distance,” Mendenhall said, referring to when Jackson has the ball. “One player to get him down is difficult. He can make anybody miss, and any play can score. But it’s clear that their plan this year is for him to be more intentional about staying in the pocket, to deliver the ball on a pass play, to read it through, and to be more poised and patient. But that doesn’t mean if there’s not an opening, he’s not going to take it. He was just quicker to run a year ago. He’s more poised and patient than he was a year ago.”

Louisville had a bye last week, which could prove very beneficial on the health front. But after a 4-1 start to the 2017 season, the Cardinals have dropped three of their last four, including an October 28 matchup with Wake Forest (42-32). Virginia, meanwhile, responded to two bad performances with a thrilling come-from-behind win over Georgia Tech last weekend. The victory boosted the Cavaliers’ record to 6-3.

Game Essentials

  • Three Trends

    1. UVA’s third down conversion struggles. The Hoos have been trending the wrong way in terms of third down conversion offense. Georgia Tech was more of the same. However, the Hoos overcame a meager 4-of-17 performance on third down to get the win. Virginia will have to do better against the Cardinals in order to sustain long drives, thus keeping Jackson off the field and the Cavalier defense fresh.
    2. Kickoff return success. Joe Reed had a 69-yard kickoff return against Pitt. As you know, he had a 92-yard kick return for a touchdown against Georgia Tech. He also returned the first kickoff of the game 57 yards to set up a field goal by AJ Mejia. UL has surrendered a kickoff return touchdown this year, so Reed is one to watch … assuming he is kicked to.
    3. Louisville defense struggles in the red zone. The Cardinals defensive unit ranks no. 108 in the nation in red zone defense, allowing 24 scores in 27 red zone attempts by opposing teams. Twenty of those scores were touchdowns.

    Three Questions

    1. How will Virginia’s players handle being bowl eligible? Reaching the 6-win mark must have felt like a giant weight was lifted off the Cavalier players’ backs. I could easily see the players playing looser as a result, but is that a good or bad thing? I’m thinking good, but you never know. Will the players have the same edge and the same focus?
    2. Can Virginia contain Lamar Jackson? Jackson’s final yardage and touchdown total versus Virginia last season was significant; however, the Cavalier defense did a good job against the Heisman Trophy winner, sacking him five times and holding him under 100 yards rushing. If Virginia can replicate last season’s performance, I think the Hoos will stand a good chance to get a victory on Saturday.
    3. Can Kurt Benkert be consistent? Virginia’s senior starting quarterback has had his share of ups and downs the past two seasons. He struggled the three games prior to Georgia Tech but rebounded against the Yellow Jackets, looking sharp as he helped bring the Cavaliers back to victory. Virginia needs a sharp Benkert here on out if it wants to finish the season on a strong note.

    Three Foes

    1. Quarterback Lamar Jackson. Easy one here. The big-time dual-threat can take over games.
    2. Wide Receiver Jaylen Smith. Smith leads the Cardinals in receiving yards (619) and is tied with Dez Fitzpatrick for the lead in receptions at 39. How UVA’s cornerbacks play against these two is crucial in keeping this offense in check. Smith had only two catches for 45 yards against the Hoos last season. However, he was on the receiving end of Jackson’s game-winning 29-yard touchdown pass.
    3. Cornerback Jaire Alexander. Alexander is a terrific cornerback who has had an injury-riddled season, having played in only three games due to knee and hand injuries. He reportedly could play against UVA. If he does and he’s healthy, Alexander would give the Louisville defense a significant lift if he plays and he’s healthy. Kurt Benkert probably wouldn’t be as excited, as Jaire picked him off twice last year.

    Remember When …

    Virginia handed Louisville a 23-21 defeat in Scott Stadium. This was the first football matchup between the two schools since UL joined the ACC.

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