Virginia Football Game Preview: Louisville

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Benkert is looking to rebound from a shaky performance against UNC. ~ Kris Wright

Virginia football had a distinctly different feel less than two weeks ago.

Having taken a 28-21 first half lead over Pittsburgh in Scott Stadium on October 15, UVA appeared primed to capture a third straight win and move to 2-0 in the ACC. The Cavaliers have since been outscored by Pitt and UNC 59-17, dropping both games and falling to 2-5 (1-2 in the ACC) in the first season of the Bronco Mendenhall era.

Junior quarterback Kurt Benkert, who flourished in victories over Central Michigan and Duke as well as in the first quarter against Pitt, has struggled in his past six quarters of play. Virginia very much needs to get him back on track quickly with AP no. 5 Louisville coming to Scott Stadium at noon on Saturday, October 29.

“Kurt struggled I would say the last six quarters, not quite as sharp, but really just a little bit antsy in the pocket,” Mendenhall said during his Monday weekly press conference.

Virginia has played Louisville tough each of the past two seasons, defeating the Cardinals, 23-21, in Charlottesville in 2014. Louisville and UVA were tied at 24 at the beginning of the fourth quarter in last season’s contest before the Cardinals pulled away and ultimately secured a 38-31 home victory.

For good reason, Cardinals Heisman Trophy candidate Lamar Jackson receives the bulk of the headlines. Louisville’s defense, though, is a stingy group that is ranked no. 10 among all FBS schools in total yards allowed. Louisville’s D ranked 19th against the run and 19th against the pass nationally.

Jackson, a sophomore, has been exceptional as the catalyst of head coach Bobby Petrino’s offense, which is averaging 616.9 yards (no. 2 in the nation) and 52.6 points (no. 1 in the nation) per game. The dual-threat signal caller has passed for 2,161 yards with 18 touchdowns and just four interceptions while rushing for 908 yards and 16 scores.

“This quarterback is very dynamic,” Mendenhall said. “Throws the ball well, runs the ball well and is super explosive at any given time.”

Big plays have consistently hurt the Hoos this season, not a good thing against this Louisville squad. Rushing-wise, the Cardinals have had runs of 80, 72, 50, and 48 yards. UL receivers have hauled in catches of 74, 72, 67, 55, and 53 yards.

Louisville began the season with four straight wins that included a 63-20 victory over Florida State at home. The Cardinals then lost at Clemson, 42-36, and escaped a close one at home against Duke with a 24-14 win. After drubbing NC State, 54-13, last week, the Cardinals appear to be going full throttle once again. This will be quite a challenge for Mendenhall and company.

Virginia Football Essentials

Hoo Facts

  • Former UVA quarterback Matt Blundin will have his no. 14 jersey retired on Saturday. Per Virginia Athletics Media Relations, jersey retirement honors Virginia players who have significantly impacted the program. Individuals recognized in this way will have their jerseys retired, but their number will remain active.
  • Blundin was Shawn Moore’s backup before taking over as Virginia’s starter in 1991. He enjoyed a record setting 1991 campaign, completing 135-of-224 passes for 1,902 yards with 19 touchdowns and zero interceptions. Blundin’s 224 pass attempts without an interception remains an NCAA record.
  • Blundin’s son, Ethan, is a first year walk-on wide receiver for the Hoos.
  • Former Virginia head coach George Welsh will also be honored on Saturday. The Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year Foundation and the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl will celebrate the 25th anniversary of Coach Welsh’s Dodd Trophy award with an on-field ceremony at Scott Stadium.
  • As UVA head coach from 1982-2000, Welsh guided the Cavaliers 134-86-3 record, two ACC titles, and 12 bowl appearances.
  • Virginia’s all-time record versus Louisville is 2-2. The Cavaliers defeated the Cardinals, 23-21, when the two teams faced off in Scott Stadium in 2014. Virginia lost at Louisville last season.
  • UVA is 2-8-1 all-time against AP Top 5 opponents in Scott Stadium.
  • Louisville is the highest ranked opponent UVA head coach Bronco Mendenhall has faced since his 2012 BYU team played at then-No. 5 Notre Dame.
  • Mendenhall is 1-2 all-time against the AP Top 5. It is the fourth time Mendenhall has faced an AP Top 5 team in his career. He beat then-No. 3 Oklahoma in 2009, lost at then-No. 5 TCU in 2010 and lost the 2012 game at Notre Dame.
  • Virginia’s Micah Kiser and Quin Blanding lead the ACC in tackles per game. Kiser ranks sixth nationally in tackles, while Blanding is no. 8 nationally.
  • Nicholas Conte leads the ACC in punting average (45.3 yards per punt). He is no. 13 in the nation in the same category.
  • With 36 yards rushing, senior running back Taquan Mizzell will pass legendary Cavalier “Bullet” Bill Dudley and become no. 25 on Virginia’s all-time rushing list. Mizzell’s 174 career receptions ranks no. 2 all-time at Virginia.

Cardinal Facts

  • Louisville is in its third year as a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference. It is UVA’s annual crossover opponent, meaning the Cavaliers and Cardinals will face each other every season.
  • Bobby Petrino is in his second go-round as Louisville head coach. He compiled a 41-9 record and led the program to four consecutive bowl games from 2003-2006. Louisville has compiled a 23-10 record and gone to two bowl games since Petrino resumed the head coach position in 2014.
  • Louisville, ranked no. 5 in the AP Top 25, is the most highly ranked opponent UVA has played in Scott Stadium since then-no. 2 Oregon in 2013.
  • Cardinals dual-threat quarterback Lamar Jackson has become a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender. He is the catalyst of a Cardinals offense that ranks no. 2 among all FBS schools in total offense per game.
  • Louisville averages 616.9 total yards per game and 7.97 yards per play. Its rushing offense is no. 6 nationally while its passing offense is no. 14 in the country among FBS schools.
  • Louisville ranks no. 10 among all FBS schools in overall defense, no. 19 in rushing defense, and no. 19 in passing yards allowed per game.
  • Louisville has forced 15 turnovers but has lost 16 turnovers this season.

3 Hoos To Watch

    • Quarterback Kurt Benkert.

Benkert was pulled in favor of backup Conner Brewer in the fourth quarter of the UNC game. How he responds to the pulling and to his recent struggles will be key in how Virginia fares this Saturday.

    • Kick returner/wide receiver Joe Reed.

Reed has enjoyed success as Virginia’s primary kickoff returner. He almost broke one for a touchdown last week against UNC. A big play from him on special teams will be welcome as the Cavaliers try and pull the upset.

    • Safety Quin Blanding.

Blanding will have to be all over the field to help contain Jackson and this potent Louisville offensive attack.

3 Cardinals To Watch

    • Quarterback Lamar Jackson.

Not much else needs to be said here. Jackson can beat you with his legs and his arm.

    • Wide Receiver James Quick.

Quick is Jackson’s favorite receiver and the team leader in receptions with 32.

    • Cornerback Jaire Alexander.

Alexander leads Louisville in interceptions with three. Two of those picks came against Clemson. Alexander is also a dangerous punt returner. He is averaging over 13 yards per return and has a touchdown return to his credit this season.

3 Things To Watch

    • Big plays.

Once again, this has been a consistent problem for Virginia this season. Louisville has broken many big plays this season. Forcing Louisville to drive the field and earn points will be important.

    • UVA offense getting its groove back.

Consistency on offense has also been a problem for Virginia throughout the season. The Hoos have been stuck in neutral the past six quarters. Can Benkert and the offense get back on track?

    • UVA’s receivers versus the Louisville secondary.

Virginia’s wideouts could not gain separation against North Carolina. They’ll have to do a much better job against Louisville. If they do, perhaps it will help Benkert get his rhythm back.

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