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The Big Preview: Can the Hoos Take the First Step Towards Winning Out?

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The stretch run begins this week. The Hoos head to Louisville for the first time since 1988, needing a win to stay alive for a bowl game. At 3-6, they need to win out. Last year, the Hoos picked up a big win over the Cardinals at Scott Stadium. But, though the Hoos outplayed the Cardinals for most of that game, they still needed a gift from the Cardinals to salvage the win.

Mike London needs his team to win out if he's going to keep his job.
Mike London needs his team to win out if he's going to keep his job.
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Hoos need to win out in order to make a bowl game and save Mike London's job. Believe what you may about Craig Littlepage and company, but a 4th consecutive losing season will end Mike London's Virginia career. Considering he hasn't won a game on the road in 3 years, winning out would be quite an accomplishment.

The Cardinals, on the other hand, are 5-4 and need just one more win to secure a bowl berth. This, however, is their last home game and their easiest remaining contest. So expect Louisville to come out with a lot of energy and confidence. It is, after all, senior day.

The Hoos, last year, managed to beat Louisville 23-21. They were aided by a muffed punt from Louisville late in the game. This came after the Hoos blew a 13 point lead in the 4th quarter and Louisville had a 1 point lead.

So both teams have something to play for. The Hoos are coming off a tough loss to Miami and the Cardinals are coming off an easy win over Syracuse. How will this game play out?

Louisville Offense

Bobby Petrino is widely considered an offensive genius. (That is, a genius of offense as opposed to a genius who offends people. Though considering his past, he may be the later as well.)

However, Louisville's offense is not very good right now. And wasn't very good last year either. Basically, since the departure of Teddy Bridgewater, he has had trouble maintaining much of an offense. Much of this has been tied the inability to find a QB. Last year, Louisville used 3 QBs led by Will Gardner, who threw for over 1600 yards and had a 12/3 TD/INT ratio. Gardner tore his ACL and has not played this year, although he is listed 4th on the QB depth chart. This year, true freshman Lamar Jackson has received the majority of the playing time, but he's now dealing with an ankle injury and sophomore Kyle Bolin will likely start this week. Bolin was outstanding last week against Syracuse, completing 24/35 for 362 yards and 3 TDs, with 1 INT.

While Bolin is the better passer of the two QBs, Jackson is a true dual threat guy. In fact, he leads the team in rushing with 484 yards. Regardless of who plays, Louisville will be running a spread offense, with multiple WRs in multiple formations. Bolin is the passer, so he'll run a lot of short, quick passes. They want to get the ball into the playmakers hands as quickly as possible. Jackson, though, is a runner. He'll run a lot of the same quick passes, but he'll also run the read-option as well as some designed QB runs. The Hoos have been picked apart by passing QBs this year, and have largely been successful against running QBs. So, by that measure, the Hoos would rather face Jackson.

With QB unsettled, the Cardinals have also not been able to settle on a RB. They've used 3 in rotation, with junior Brandon Radcliffe leading the way. All 3 guys, Radcliffe plus sophomores Jeremy Smith and L.J. Scott are listed as "OR" on the depth chart. Smith is listed first and he has been, perhaps the most dangerous of the group.

Amazingly enough, the Cardinals haven't been able to find a go-to WR either. In fact, 7 Cardinals have caught more than 10 passes, with the leader being James Quick who has just 29 catches. Quick was the leading receiver for Louisville in last year's contest against Virginia. Louisville lost 5 of their top 6 pass catchers last year, with Quick being the only holdover. That includes first round draft pick Davante Parker, who only played in 6 games last year because of injury. Quick, it should be noted, is the guy who muffed the punt in last year's contest. He no longer returns kicks.

The Cardinal's OL right now includes 3 freshmen (2 true freshmen) and a sophomore. The only upperclassman is senior OC Tobijah Hughley, originally a walk-on. Nine different players have started a game on the OL for the Cardinals this year. Only true freshman LT Geron Christian has started every game. Perhaps this is why the Cardinals are 2nd to last in the nation in sacks allowed, with nearly 4 sacks per game. They are also 118th in TFLs allowed, with nearly 8 per game.

Despite all of these problems, Louisville still ranks 69th in total offense. The rushing offense is just 92nd, but the passing offense is 46th (and 60th in efficiency). They are also 50th in scoring offense. So, despite the personnel issues, this is still a decent offense.

This certainly seems like the kind of game where Jon Tenuta's defensive scheme could work. While he may not need to blitz quite as much, a young OL is going to struggle to contain the various blitz packages that Tenuta will throw at them. And while the Cardinals' WR corps is deep, there isn't one guy that the Hoos should be particularly scared of.

The down side of the blitzing, of course, is that Louisville could hit on a big play. While this isn't truly a big play offense, at least not like UNC, Georgia Tech and Miami are, they are still capable of hitting on a big play now and then.

Player to Watch

#14 QB Kyle Bolin - Bolin is here really as a placeholder for whichever QB plays. Whichever one plays, the main job of the Hoos will be to slow him down. When Bolin plays, the Cardinals are going to try to get rid of the ball quickly, so he doesn't face the QB pressure that Jon Tenuta surely wants to put on him. This means that the Hoos should play more press coverage, rather than give a big cushion.

If Jackson plays, the focus is going to be more on slowing down the read-option and the running lanes. Though he will also throw a lot of short, quick passes, he isn't the passer than Bolin is and could make some mistakes against changing coverages and blitzes.

Louisville Defense

So if the offense has struggled, how is Louisville 5-4? How have they stayed tight with Clemson and Auburn? The answer is defense. Louisville boasts the #15 defense in the nation. Led by Todd Grantham, a Virginia Tech grad who could well be the next head coach there, this defense is 16th in the nation in sacks, 25th in TFLs plus  4th in INTs and 7th in turnovers gained.

In other words, everything that Jon Tenuta wants his defense to do, Louisville does. The Cardinals play a 3-4 base defense and will stay in that formation for most of the game. As you'd expect, the LBs do most of the work. The two ILBs, James Burgess and Keith Kelsey, are 1-2 on the team in tackles, by a good margin. OLB Trevon Young leads the team with 8.5 sacks (though he is listed as a backup to both starting OLBs, he plays on most passing downs and will line up on either side). Another OLB Devonte Fields, is 4th on the team in tackles, 2nd in TFLs and first in QB hurries. Fields may actually be the best NFL prospect on the team, though he may move to DE in the NFL.

DE Sheldon Rankins may have something to say about that NFL prospect comment, as he's on the radar as a 4-3 DT in the NFL. Rankins is 5th on the team in tackles, 4th in TFLs and 2nd in sacks. That is all quite an accomplishment in a two-gap defense. Rankins is the only real playmaker on the DL. The other 2 spots are there to take up blockers and allow the LBs to do the dirty work.

The Cardinals' secondary is the one place where there are underclassmen getting real playing time. Three of the four DBs are sophomores. But, all of them are good. CB Trumaine Washington has 4 INTs and his opposite, Shaq Wiggins has 2. The lone upperclassman is safety Josh Harvey-Clemons, who is 3rd on the team in tackles. He's more of a strong safety, who will come up into the box and make plays against the run. Chucky Williams is the FS, who will cover a RB or TE out of the backfield. He's got 3 INTs on the year.

Though the secondary is opportunistic, they can be beaten. The Hoos WRs are all going to have big size advantages on the Louisville DBs, so there should be some jump balls available. Matt Johns hasn't shown the touch necessary for these passes. But the stop routes and back shoulder throws that he's used with Canaan Severin should be there as well.

Despite the Hoos improvements in the running game over the past month, this doesn't seem like an opportunity for the Hoos to be successful there. Certainly, with their OL and RB corps, there isn't going to be much between the tackles. If they can keep the Louisville ILBs out of the backfield, there may be some success running outside. Matt Johns could also have success scrambling, as Louisville has struggled to contain running QBs. Of course, Johns isn't quite as athletic as some of the other QBs in the ACC.

The big concern is that Johns is going to find himself under pressure a lot. He's shown this year that he's not particularly comfortable against QB pressure and he makes too many mistakes. Louisville will thrive on turnovers and negative plays. So keeping an extra blocker in would be prudent, because Grantham will continue to come at Johns until he proves he can beat the rush.

Player to Watch

#98 DE Sheldon Rankins - Though Rankins will likely move inside in the NFL, for now he's a 300 pound DE who is quick and athletic enough to rush the passer and strong enough to play the run at the point of attack. He's the one guy the Hoos need to game plan around.

On running plays, especially ones to the outside, they should run away from him. And on passing plays, there may be a TE to chip him on the way out, just to slow down his pass rush a bit.

As we know from the Al Groh years, the 3-4 defense is at its best when there is a DE who can make plays on his own. If you can slow down Rankins, you can slow down the Cardinals' defense.

Special Teams

The Hoos, amazingly enough, have an advantage on special teams. The Cardinals' punt units (both return and coverage) are terrible. Their kickoff units are better, but still nothing special. And PK John Wallace has struggled at times this year.

The Hoos still have the #1 punt return unit in the nation. Their KR units are terrible, of course. The Hoos coverages teams have been solid all year and Ian Frye has been on fire of late.

If the game is close enough that field position and placekicking matter, the advantage goes to the Hoos.

Conclusion

If this game were at home, I might consider the Hoos the favorite. The defense has been playing much better of late, in spite of all the big plays given up. The offense, though, has struggled after showing signs early on.

This makes Louisville a good matchup, since the Cardinals are all struggling offensively, but playing very well defensively.

A sloppy, defensive game is what the Hoos want. That's the only chance they have to win.

Unfortunately, those games tend to favor the home team. And the more talented team. And the better coached team. None of which is the Hoos.

Prediction: Cardinals 27, Hoos 14