The University of Virginia football team captured its first win at Miami in a decade last Thursday, edging out the Hurricanes 30-28. Now the Hoos look to capture a second straight road victory this Saturday (October 9), when they take on ACC cross-division rival Louisville.
Virginia has never won at Louisville, going 0-4 including an 0-3 mark since the Cardinals joined the ACC. UVA is 2-3 against the Cardinals with Bronco Mendenhall as its head coach, including an 0-2 mark on the road.
Both teams enter this latest matchup with 3-2 records. UVA is coming off the 2-point win at Miami, securing its first road victory since November of 2019 when the Hurricanes missed a 33-yard field goal as time expired. The win snapped a two-game losing streak for Virginia, which seems to be trending in the right direction defensively after surrendering 96 points combined in losses to UNC and Wake Forest. UVA totaled a season-high four sacks, forced a punt on eight of 14 drives, and registered a safety against the Hurricanes.
Meanwhile, Louisville saw a three-game winning streak end with a 37-34 loss at ACC Atlantic Division leader Wake Forest last Saturday. The Cardinals are led by one the nation’s most dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks in Malik Cunningham, who has 1,616 yards of offense (1,307 pass, 309 rush) and 17 touchdowns (7 pass, 10 rush) through five games.
“On a scale of whatever dangerousnesses there are, I would put him at the top of the dangerous scale in terms how fast, how athletic … yeah, he can pull it down and run on any given play,” Mendenhall said of Cunningham. “I’m just really impressed with him. I think he’s a really good athlete. I think his throwing accuracy and precision has improved. On any given play, he’s a threat. Doesn’t take much to remind me from a year ago where we had a really hard time getting him on the ground or tackling him. He’s a really good football player in a scheme that uses him really well.”
Cunningham headlines a Louisville offense averaging 32.2 points (No. 52 in the nation among FBS schools) and 442.8 yards per game (No. 33 in the nation). The Cardinals average 168.6 yards rushing and 273.4 yards passing per game, ranking 55th and 35th in the nation in those categories. Cunningham guided the Cardinals to over 500 yards of offense and 34 points against a Wake Forest defense that limited UVA to 17 points.
Louisville is putting up points and controlling the football – 33:27 time of possession to 26:30. Its defense, however, has struggled. Playing without starting linebacker Monty Montgomery, a top playmaker who is lost for the season due to injury, the Cardinals are allowing 526.6 yards of offense and 34.2 points per game. Louisville ranks No. 108 in the nation in total defense, no. 90 in the nation in points allowed per game, no. 110 in first downs allowed, no. 96 in rushing yards allowed and no. 110 in passing yards allowed. The Cardinals have pressured the quarterback, averaging 2.6 sacks per game. Like Virginia, Louisville has not forced many turnovers. Six in fact, including five interceptions, while UVA has forced just three.
As is the case with many ACC contests, this week’s matchup could go either way. Coach Mendenhall said on his weekly radio show that he expects a close one. Virginia ousted the Cardinals in Charlottesville last season, 31-17, but fell at Louisville in 2019 by a score of 28-21.
“I see a dynamic quarterback and I see, wow, two really similar teams and strengths and weaknesses matching and not matching, and an ACC road game that I think will be four quarters right til the end similar to what last week was,” Mendenhall said on ‘Coach’s Corner.’ “I think the reality is these two teams will go really hard right til the end. I think it will be most likely a small margin that will determine. That’s what I think is getting ready to happen.”
Three Cardinals To Watch: Offense
Malik Cunningham, Quarterback, #3
Cunningham is to Louisville what Bryce Perkins was to Virginia. Like Perkins, Cunningham has responded to being the centerpiece of his team’s offense, churning out production on the ground and through the air while also being a team leader.
Cunningham is second on Louisville in rushing this year, totaling 309 yards on 70 carries for a 4.4 yards-per-carry average. The 6’1”, 200-pound signal caller has the ability to break long touchdowns and is also a key red zone rushing threat. Cunningham has had two rushing touchdowns in every game this season, totaling 10 scores on the ground.
An inconsistent passer earlier in his career, Cunningham appears to have improved in this area. He has completed 104-of-163 passes (63.8%) for 1,307 yards with seven touchdowns and two interceptions through five games this season. The past four games, he has completed over 60% of his passes, thrown six touchdowns and just one interception.
Jalen Mitchell, Running Back, #15
Virginia had a tough time handling the dynamic rushing duo of running back Javian Hawkins and Malik Cunningham the last time the teams faced off in Louisville. Cunningham had 97 yards rushing and Hawkins eclipsed 100 yards, churning out 126 in total.
Mitchell, a 5’10”, 221-pound redshirt freshman, leads Louisville in rushing with 331 yards and is the most likely back to take the rushing pressure off Cunningham. Mitchell has double-digit carries in all five games this season, including 17 versus Wake Forest last week. He finished with 89 yards versus a solid Demon Deacon defense.
If Mitchell or any other back has success early, it could be a long day for the Cavalier defense, as this opens up opportunities for Cunningham in the run and passing games.
Marshon Ford, Tight End, #83
Louisville entered 2021 needing to replace top wide receivers Dez Fitzpatrick and Tutu Atwell. Young receivers such as freshman Jordan Watkins (18 catches, 213 yards, 1 TD) and Ahmari Higgins-Bruce (9 catches, 190 yards, 1 TD) have had their moments, but 6’2”, 240-pound Ford has been Cunningham’s top receiving target. Through five games, the redshirt junior is just two receptions away from tying his season-high reception total of 25, which he accomplished in 2020. Ford leads Louisville in catches (23) and receiving yards (241) this season.
Three Cardinals To Watch: Defense
Yasir Abdullah, Linebacker, #22
Abdullah had a quiet game against Wake Forest, totaling three tackles and a pass breakup. Outside of last week’s loss in Winston-Salem, Abdullah has been a playmaker for the Cardinals. He is the team leader in tackles for loss (6) and sacks (4), highlighted by a 3.5 tackle-for-loss and 2-sack effort in a win at Florida State in Week 4.
Jack Fagot, Linebacker, #38
The 6’0”, 195-pound redshirt senior is coming off an impressive game at Wake Forest in which he totaled eight tackles, seven of which were solo efforts, with a sack and a pass breakup. Fagot had 10 tackles with two tackles for loss the previous week at Florida State, so he enters the UVA game on a hot streak defensively.
Kei’Trel Clark, Defensive Back, #13
Clark, a Richmond (VA) native who transferred from Liberty to Louisville following the 2019 season, earned All-ACC Second Team honors in 2020, his first year in Louisville. Clark has picked up where he left off last season, totaling 27 tackles (21 solo), three interceptions, 2.5 tackles for loss and two pass breakups in 2021. The 5’10”, 180-pound cornerback had 10 pass breakups last season, which was tied for eighth nationally.
Three Things For Virginia To Focus On
Stop The Run
Louisville wants to be balanced and control the clock. Through five games, rushing attempts (198) and passes (170) are almost equal, and the Cardinals are averaging 168.6 yards rushing and 273.4 yards passing. If the Cardinals get going on the ground, that spells trouble for UVA on a few fronts.
Virginia’s defense, while improving, looks thin. I question whether the Cavaliers could hold up against a consistent rushing attack from start to finish. Should Louisville establish the ground game, the passing game, which again features some youthful receivers, becomes easier for Cunningham and company. And finally, Louisville would be able to control the football, keeping a Virginia offense that has surpassed 500 yards of offense in four of five contests this year off the field.
No Big Play Touchdowns
Virginia has surrendered its share of big plays to Louisville the past two seasons. The key is not letting those big plays go for six.
In 2019, three of the four Cardinals scores were of the big-play variety – a 77-yard TD pass and touchdown runs of 25 and 17 yards. Last season, UVA surrendered big plays but only one big play touchdown – a 19-yard run from Cunningham – on its way to a 31-17 victory in Scott Stadium. On three other possessions last year in Scott, Cunningham had runs of 24 yards or more, but the Hoos were able to escape with no points given up. The Virginia D played a bend-but-don’t break game in 2020, as Louisville drove inside the UVA 40 six times but came away with only 17 points.
Play A Clean Game
In what figures to be a close game, turnovers and penalties can make the difference. Last season, Louisville turned the ball over three times as the Hoos captured a 14-point victory. One of the turnovers was a Noah Taylor interception that he returned 85 yards for a score. In 2019, the Cardinals were turnover-free while Bryce Perkins tossed an interception late in the first half, costing UVA a scoring opportunity deep in Louisville territory. The difference in the game wound up being seven points.
Turnovers should be important once again. Penalties could be too. Neither team has been good in the penalty department this season, with Louisville averaging 67.2 penalty yards per game and Virginia averaging 68.2.
Sabre Editor Kris Wright
The Virginia football team found a way to end a two-game skid and its road woes (at least temporarily) last week at Miami, which erased the daunting 2-4 outlook that seemed somewhere between possible and probable prior to the trip. Now, the Hoos will return home in a week with at worst a 3-3 record ahead of two home games. Can they make it 4-2 instead with another road win on consecutive trips? The program hasn’t won two straight road games since 2017 and hasn’t won two straight ACC road games since 2011 when it won three road games in four weeks (at Miami, at Maryland, at Florida State) on the way to a Chick-Fil-A Bowl appearance.
Standing in the way of the back-to-back attempt is Louisville, UVA’s annual crossover opponent from the ACC’s Atlantic Division. Over the past four years, the two teams have taken turns winning at home with the Hoos prevailing in 2018 and 2020 and the Cards coming out on top in 2017 and 2019. To stop that pattern and win in Louisville, the Wahoos will need to deal with Malik Cunningham and try to be a little better offensively than last week. Cunningham ran all over Virginia last season so that part of the equation won’t be easy, though Noah Taylor did get a pick-6 in that game too.
Bottom line: this game looks like it is between two teams with similar strengths and similar challenges. Good offense, not as good defense. Penalty issues. Similar turnover numbers. If either team can clean up some of problems, it could have the upper hand. Ultimately, though, this one comes down to which quarterback plays better overall and I think Brennan Armstrong is due for a bounce-back game after being highly critical of his own play last week. VIRGINIA 40, LOUISVILLE 33. Season to date: 2-3.
Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne
If he is on, Malik Cunningham is tough to stop. The difference this year is the surrounding cast. Louisville has talent at running back and wide receiver, but at this point they are not on the same level as previous Cardinal big-time threats such as Hawkins and Tutu Atwell. If the Hoos can limit (or hopefully eliminate) big-play touchdowns, I think the defense will hold up.
Meanwhile, Virginia’s offense will be hard for Louisville to handle. The rushing attack looked good against Miami and has a chance to do well against a Louisville defense that has surrendered an average of 173 yards per contest. Brennan Armstrong has had consecutive games in which he has completed less than 60% of his throws. He’ll need to get back on track in terms of consistent accuracy and decision-making.
This Virginia football team still has a Jekyll and Hyde feel to it at times, mostly on the defensive end, but I think the defense is headed in the right direction. The UVA offense has more pop than Louisville at the skill positions and should be able to put up points. Cunningham will be tough, but I think UVA leaves Louisville with another road win. VIRGINIA 38, LOUISVILLE 27. Season to date: 2-3