Potent Louisville Stands In The Way Of A Second Straight Win For Virginia Football

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Barring a repeat of last week, the University of Virginia football program will finally face the University of Louisville in Scott Stadium on Saturday, November 14.

Virginia (2-4) is looking to continue the momentum gained from a 44-41 upset win over North Carolina on Halloween, while Louisville (2-5) is looking to rebound from a 7-point home Halloween loss to Virginia Tech. The Cardinals will likely be shorthanded because of coronavirus positive tests and contact tracing that forced them to postpone last week’s matchup in Charlottesville. Nine players, including eight defensive players (six defensive linemen), were held out of the Virginia Tech game because of COVID-19.

As of Monday, Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall was confident the Cavs and Cards will go on as scheduled.

“I haven’t had any communication directly but, Dr. (John) MacKnight has. The conference office has. Kelly Pugh our trainer has. Our athletic director Carla Williams has,” Mendenhall said during his November 9 press conference. “So there’s really been nothing between [Louisville coach Scott Satterfield] and myself, nor does there really need to be. But at the other levels, there have been the exchanges and so the game at this point is on, as if it was just a regular ACC game. The reality is, they’ve had additional staff test positive, but their testing over the weekend allows them to move forward as if it’s like any of the rest of us that are getting ready to play a game. So that obviously is the regular testing Monday Wednesday Friday will have the normal bearing as it does on anyone, but there’s nothing now in the way of us playing that would have been in place that atypical in regards to just what the season looks like. So, both teams are anticipating playing now.”

Virginia sophomore quarterback Brennan Armstrong has cut down on turnovers in the past two games. ~ Photo courtesy Jim Daves/Virginia Athletics Media Relations

A depleted Cardinals defense certainly could bolster a Virginia offense coming off its best offensive output of the season. Before the 44-point outburst against UNC, UVA scored 23 points or less in four straight games. The run-game has anchored Virginia’s offensive success, as the Hoos have rushed for 185 or more yards in each of the past three games, going over the 200-yard mark against Wake Forest and North Carolina.

Louisville’s rushing defense is suspect, giving up an average of 201 yards rushing per contest. Virginia Tech racked up 283 yards rushing against a depleted Cardinals defense that may look similar personnel-wise to the unit UVA will face Saturday.

Putting together time-consuming drives may be crucial for Virginia, as Louisville boasts a potent offensive attack. The Cardinals, who have dynamic performers at quarterback, running back, wide receiver and tight end, are averaging 435.3 yards (250 pass, 185 rush) and 29.4 points per game. Virginia’s defense, which has been impacted by injuries to starting safeties Joey Blount and Brenton Nelson, has been surrendering explosive plays consistently. Against UNC, the Hoos yielded 536 yards and 41 points – two touchdowns were 50+ yards – but were able to make enough plays to edge out a 3-point victory in the end.

In Charlottesville in 2016, Louisville needed a 29-yard touchdown pass from Lamar Jackson with 13 seconds left to take down the Hoos. Since then, the home team has controlled – and won – every game in the series. This game has the potential to be a close one with both teams in search of win no. 3 and looking to spark a late season surge.

Essentials

Three Opponents To Watch

No. 3 Micale Cunningham, junior, quarterback: The 6’1”, 200-pound dual-threat signal caller blitzed Virginia in the passing game – 6-10 for 126 yards and a touchdown – and on the ground with 97 yards rushing and a score as Louisville defeated the Hoos, 28-21, in Louisville last season.

Cunningham has flashed the same big-play ability this season, ranking no. 10 in Division 1 in passing yards (1,746) and no. 11 in passing touchdowns (15). He has become a more efficient passer in the past three games. After completing under 60% of his passes in Louisville’s first four games, the Alabama native has completed 55-of-78 passes (70.5%) for 760 yards with six touchdowns in close losses to Notre Dame and Virginia Tech and a blowout win over Florida State.

Interceptions have been an issue, though, as Cunningham ranks no. 96 in the nation with eight picks thrown. Three interceptions against the Hokies snapped a 3-game interception-free streak.

The speedy Cunningham has become a consistent factor as a runner the past three games as well, averaging 5.9 yards per carry while totaling 136 yards rushing. He can escape pressure and make plays scrambling.

No. 10 Javian Hawkins, sophomore, running back: Hawkins has become one of the conference’s best tailbacks within the past two seasons. The 5’9”, 166-pound sophomore is not the biggest back, but his production is huge, he has the speed to break big plays, and he has not lost a fumble in his college career, so he takes care of the football.

Hawkins finished 2019 with 1,525 yards rushing and nine touchdowns, and through seven games this season he has rushed for 822 yards and seven scores. A 90-yard touchdown scamper against Virginia Tech demonstrated his ability to break long touchdowns. Virginia has performed well against the run but has given up some big run plays this season, such as a 70+ yarder against Wake Forest in the fourth quarter.

Hawkins has 16 catches for 127 yards, so UVA will have to account for him in the passing game as well.

No. 83 Marshon Ford, sophomore, tight end:

Tutu Atwell is the speedy, shifty receiver Louisville can play in the slot and on the outside. He leads the Cards in catches (40) and yards (528). Dez Fitzpatrick is a wide receiver with size and the speed to break big plays. He is averaging 20.1 yards per catch. UVA’s secondary will have their hands full with those two, but the Hoos cannot forget about Ford, who is third on the team in catches (20) and tied with Atwell with five touchdown receptions on the season. Ford could be the one that hurts a vulnerable UVA secondary.

Three Quotes

Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall on getting through a challenging first half of the season, and if his team is a “bowl-caliber” team: “We really didn’t acknowledge the beginning being tougher or easier. I keep using the word parity but that’s how I see it. I’ve seen all the teams that we’ve played on film and I’ve seen all the teams we’re going to play. I really just don’t see much difference. If you watch them you wouldn’t know, sometimes I scroll to the end to see what the score was because when I’m watching it’s like ‘who’s gonna win this?’ And so I just I think it’s a trap to consider we played all the good teams or we had this really hard stretch. It just seems like, again, with a handful of plays any of these games could have gone any direction. So, I just see the next part of our schedule, I really don’t see it, and I know the analytics, or the results might speak differently to that but when I watch the teams play, I just don’t see that big a difference. So, it is just simply as cliché based as possible. It is really just this week, and this opponent and however we can get our team prepared to make enough plays to win the game. I think they’re all going to be fourth quarter-ish back-and-forthers that you’re just not quite sure, but you have to make the critical plays to win. In regard to the bowl component of it, we haven’t addressed that. We do know, and I have talked about what the world thinks. As you probably, I might have said or might not have said out loud, I really don’t think the polls matter until after about game eight. The rest is, I guess, fun for those that aren’t in the business. But there’s zero reality, no that’s an exaggeration, there’s a small amount of reality but the rest, is nobody knows. So after you play about eight games, the accuracy increases and it’s like, okay, yeah I could see where that would happen. So, we’re just trying to improve our football team, trying to have a magical experience and finish for this team. And then after all that we’ll see. But if the world thought, or thinks, Clemson was one, if the world thinks or thought Miami was 13, if the world thinks or thought North Carolina was 15, I think we’ve measured pretty favorably and battled tooth and nail in all those. But the body of work, the entire body of work, will be the answer, and we’re about halfway so I’m just gonna leave it there.”

Louisville head coach Scott Satterfield on Cunningham and the Louisville passing attack: “I want to continue to progress our passing game. “We still want to be able to run the football, but the passing game has to be an integral part of what we’re doing to get the ball down the field. They’ve done a great job of creating pressure and getting sacks. Snowden has had a tremendous last two weeks. He’s had five sacks over the last two weeks. We certainly want to be very efficient at throwing the football.”

Virginia Defensive Coordinator Nick Howell on defending Micale Cunningham: “The challenge that presents is you have to decide how you are going to cover them and how are you going to contain him. There’s different tempos of coverage – some that have good contain and some that don’t. If you sit back in zones, then they can really run wild as far as the quarterback is concerned. You cover the routes. If you man ‘em up, now you have extra guys on the quarterback, now can you cover ‘em because he’s able to throw. It’s that dual threat of a guy being able to run. So that is a challenge. Our plan is in the works to do that. We’ve seen other guys like this and we’ve been successful in the past and we’ve been unsuccessful in the past. So, it is a challenge.”

Charles Snowden created some much needed havoc in the win over North Carolina. ~ Photo courtesy Matt Riley/Virginia Athletics Media Relations

Three Key Questions

1. Who takes care of the football?
Virginia was often its worst enemy in its first four games, committing 12 turnovers including a season-high four in a home loss to NC State. The Hoos have steadied the ship in the past two weeks, turning the ball over once against Miami – a fumble on a desperation play as time expired – and once against North Carolina – an interception from Armstrong. Still not zero, but we will take the improvement. The lack of turnovers helped Virginia defeat North Carolina and have a chance to win against the Hurricanes.

Louisville has experienced turnover issues as well throughout 2020. In seven games the Cardinals have 15 turnovers. Cunningham’s 3-interception performance against Virginia Tech was the fourth time this season the Cardinals committed three turnovers in a game.

Neither team has a large margin for error, so turnovers could be a big indicator of who comes away with the victory. UVA won the turnover battle in both of its wins in 2020. Meanwhile, Louisville has not won the turnover battle in any game so far, but in the games where it has tied (Notre Dame and Florida State) the Cardinals are 1-1.

2. Will Brennan Armstrong maintain his solid play?
Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall cautioned following the season opening win over Duke that Brennan Armstrong would experience growing pains in his development. That’s just what we saw in Virginia’s first three games, as Armstrong tossed six interceptions (two in each game).

The sophomore signal caller missed the second half versus NC State and the entire Wake Forest game with a concussion. He returned for the Miami game, and for the first time this season he did not throw an interception. In fact, none of his passes against the Hurricanes were in danger of being intercepted. Armstrong’s interception against North Carolina was similar to the throws we saw early in the season – he was late on the pass, made a poor decision to throw in tight coverage, and the turnover gave the Tar Heels possession in Virginia territory. Before that, Armstrong’s performance was similar to the Miami game – solid decision making, no passes in danger of being picked off.

“I think that what was slowing us down early in the season was me turning the ball over,” Armstrong said. “If I can take care of the ball, we’re doing to put up points.”

Virginia has shown that it can run the football. The passing attack remains important, though, and Armstrong and company need to make some plays and be turnover free for the offense to reach its potential. This is a must against a Louisville team that has an explosive offense.

3. Which team gets off to the fast start?

Virginia has been outscored by its opponents 65-23 in the first quarter this season. UVA performed better against Miami and North Carolina, tying the Hurricanes 7-7 and outscoring North Carolina 13-10. In the first four games of 2020, the Hoos were outscored in the first quarter by an almost unbelievable 45 points (48-3). UVA overcame a 10-0 deficit to Duke but probably could not do the same against a Louisville team with so many weapons.

First quarters have been an issue for the visiting Cardinals as well. In losses to Miami, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and Virginia Tech, Louisville has been outscored in the first quarter 47-10.

Urgency and execution from the start will be important for both teams, but especially for Virginia. Louisville’s offense is more explosive and has shown the ability to put up big passing numbers. UVA, meanwhile, has not shown a lot of explosiveness in the passing game. The Hoos may not have the firepower to comeback if too far behind.

Three Picks

Sabre Editor Kris Wright

The delayed start to the season followed by the ever-changing season opener put the Virginia football team in a situation where it hadn’t really had a break since late August or early September. That much-awaited break was supposed to come this week, but a coronavirus postponement from Louisville mid-week flipped the calendar. So the Hoos got an unexpected bye last week, but had practiced through Wednesday anyway so it really set up as a mini-break more than anything. Still, I think it might have given the team a chance to reset before trying to make a winning push down the stretch.

There are things to build on at this point. After a flat and disappointing loss to NC State, the Cavaliers have been trending toward better quality on the field. They logged losses on the road at Wake Forest, a team on a four-game winning streak, and Miami, a team with only one loss still, but were competitive in both and then upset a ranked UNC team at home.

The biggest part of the turnaround arguably: lower turnovers. At one point, the team was on pace for 33 turnovers this season. The past 2 games, they’ve had just 2. If UVA maintains that 1.0 turnovers per game rate the rest of the way, it will end up with just 19 on the season instead. And it will have a chance to win.

So, how does that apply to Louisville? The Cardinals have 15 turnovers this season and are -11 in turnover margin, which ranks in the bottom 5 teams nationally and behind the Hoos. The Cavaliers have a chance to control that part of the game again this week. Protect the ball and play keepaway a little bit plus create some turnovers – a key against a similarly explosive Carolina offense – and I think the Hoos win.HOOS 38, Cardinals 30. This season: 4-2.

Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne

Four straight losses left Virginia football’s 2020 season on the ropes. Holding true to the culture of determination and confidence that has been built under head coach Bronco Mendenhall, the Cavaliers persevered and continued to work. The work paid off with a 44-41 upset win over North Carolina on Halloween, a win that pulled the Hoos within two games of .500.

Virginia’s young quarterback Brennan Armstrong seems to have settled down and is now making better decisions. Throwing only one interception against Miami and North Carolina is a big step forward from the six interceptions he tossed in UVA’s first three games. Steady play and the occasional big play or two from the passing game is essential to complement what has been a consistent rushing attack. Meanwhile, UVA’s defense, while vulnerable in the secondary because of injuries, seems to be getting its swagger back up front.

A potent Louisville squad comes to Charlottesville on Saturday. No question they have talent at all skill positions and the ability to put points on the board. As vulnerable as Virginia’s defense has been to explosive passes, the Hoos have been very tough against the run. The Hoos’ run defense will make Louisville have to beat them through the air. If the Cavalier offense falters I think Cunningham can take advantage of the UVA secondary, but I think the Cavalier run game and run defense prevails against the Cardinals.

A huge game for both teams goes in favor of the home team.UVA 35, Louisville 31. This season: 3-3.

Sabre Message Board Fan el dorado Pedro

After winning the season opener to Duke, the Wahoos began a downhill slide out of the National Championship discussion losing to Clemson, NC State, Wake Forest, and Miami. Recently, our beloved team began their uphill climb with a victory over the Tar Heels. Bronco Mendenhall has the team regrouped and flush with new schemes and plays. Now Louisville comes to town to get their prescription filled. Do they have an appointment with Dr. Feelgood, Dr. Hyde, or Doctor John?

An extra week to prepare will not work in the Cardinals’ favor. The UVA offense will be able to add 2 more layers of plays to the usable offense selection. Number 99 – do-everything Keytaon Thompson – will pass the ball twice and we will see more sweeps as the DL for Louisville is suspect.

Louisville’s offense is Jump Sturdy averaging 29.4 points per game. The Cardinals are also averaging 250.1 passing yards per game. QB Malik Cunningham can run it and run it he will. He will have a great day. Still, when the Cardinals land in Scott Stadium, they will get their medicine from no other than Dr. John. They will be in the right place, but it will be the wrong time. They will say the right thing, but they will use the wrong line. Simply put, Louisville will be on the right road, but they will take a wrong turn. They will get busted.

UVA’s defense will give up some big plays, but will get enough stops. UVA’s offense very well could break a single game record including Tony Poljan, Brennan Armstrong, Thompson, and the receivers and Robert Anae will be praised. Louisville will be on the right road, but they will be in the wrong car. UVA busts the Cards! UVA 33, LOUISVILLE 31. This season (last game – Cutter (W)): 4-2

Remember when …

Bryce Perkins and Brennan Armstrong made their ACC debuts as UVA defeated Louisville, 27-3, in Scott Stadium in 2018.

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