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Virginia vs. Louisville Football: The Big Preview

Nothing gets easier for the Hoos as Lamar Jackson and the Cardinals come to town.

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Louisville
Louisville brings the No. 5 team to Charlottesville.
Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Is it possible that the 2016 Hoos have peaked? The Hoos began to show improvements beginning in week two with a closer-than-expected game against Oregon. Though the consistency was often lacking, there were definite improvements seen over the following month. However, since then the Hoos have become stagnant.

The Hoos have been outclassed, at home, the past two weeks. Yes, Pitt and North Carolina are talented, veteran teams. But the Hoos, at times, looked as they didn’t belong on the same field as those teams.

This does not bode well for this week’s matchup. Last week’s opponent, UNC, is currently ranked 20th in the coaches poll. They pretty clearly demolished the Hoos. This week’s opponent is the No. 5 team in the nation. This game could get out of hand.

Game Information:

Who: Louisville Cardinals

Where: Scott Stadium

When: 12:00 ET

TV: ABC/ESPN2 (regional)

OK, let’s take a look at the matchups. Or mis-matchups as the case may be.

Louisville on Offense

QB: #8 Lamar Jackson

RB: #23 Brandon Radcliff, #34 Jeremy Smith

WR: #17 James Quick, #2 Jamari Staples, #18 TE Cole Hikutini

If the season ended today, Lamar Jackson wins the Heisman. He has put up ridiculous numbers. He’s 14th in the nation in passing yards per game and in passing TDs. Plus, he’s 7th in the nation in rushing yards per game and 1st in rushing TDs. He’s 2nd in the nation in total offense (behind Texas Tech’s Pat Mahomes, who just threw for 734 yards last week against Oklahoma). Jackson has accounted for more offense than the entire Virginia team.

Obviously, Louisville’s offense revolves around Jackson. Almost every play is run out of the pistol formation. From there, they can run a read-option to either side. They can run a straight drop back or a straight QB draw. They can also run just about any traditional running play. Radcliff leads the team in rushing and carries in the non-Lamar Jackson category. He’s averaging just around 10 carries per game, but he has 551 yards and is averaging almost eight yards per carry. JUCO transfer Jeremy Smith is a short yardage and goalline option, with seven rushing TDs on just 35 carries. He also has an 80 yard TD run, so he’s more than capable of being an every down option. Smith is 6’2” 225, while Radcliff is 5’9” 210.

Not surprisingly for a team running a read-option spread, the Cardinals have a lot of options in the passing game. Quick is the primary option, with 32 catches for 523 yards and four TDs. Staples is the big play guy, averaging almost 20 yards per reception. Hikituni is a possession guy, who is 2nd on the team with 27 receptions and also has 4 TDs. Behind that trio, Jaylen Smith (no relation to Jeremy) and Reggie Bonnafon are the main options. Bonnafan played some QB against the Hoos the last time Louisville came to Scott Stadium. With the emergence of Jackson, Bonnafon has moved full-time to WR. Bonnafon mostly lines up in the slot and can make things happen with the ball in his hands.

The Cardinal’s offense is a big play unit. Whether it is Jackson running or handing it off or throwing, Louisville’s offense is always a threat to go the distance. They are 2nd in the nation in total offense, and 1st in scoring. They have five plays of over 70 yards this year. They have 56 plays of over 20 yards. The Hoos will need to keep Louisville from picking up big chunks of yardage at once if they are going to stay in the game. This is a scary proposition for a team that has had a tendency to give up big plays.

Louisville is 6th in the nation in rushing and 14th in passing. So that means you have to pick your poison. Focus on the running game, and you’re giving Jackson single coverage against a talented group of WRs. That is why they are 10th in the nation in passing efficiency (Jackson is 12th). They don’t run the most complex route tree. They run a lot of quick slants and drags, plus a lot of deep balls and some WR screens. Hikutini is the main guy over the middle, and he’ll run a variety of routes including hitches and drags. Hikutini often lines up either as an H-back (offset from the OL) or split out. He doesn’t often line up as an in-line TE. He’s actually listed on the Louisville depth chart as an H-back.

As you would expect with such an explosive offense, the OL is very strong. The unit has three senior starters though sophomore LT Geron Christian may be the best of the group. He’s a potential first round draft pick in either 2018 or 2019. It is a big unit, averaging well over 300 pounds. They also move well, especially on the outside. This is beneficial for those read options, because they get OLs out in front of the ball carriers.

The Louisville WRs, though not particularly big, are all decent blockers. They do just enough to keep the DBs away from Jackson on his edge rushes. Jackson is one of the best open-field runners we’ve ever seen. Once he’s in the open field, he’s nearly impossible to bring down. He’s faster than almost everybody else on the field, he has insane lateral quickness and at 6’3” 205, he’s also big enough to take a hit and stay on his feet.

The Hoos have been a pressure oriented defense this year, and that isn’t likely to change. However, with Lamar Jackson’s ability to elude pressure, the Hoos need to be careful. A couple of extra pass rushers mean there are less defenders downfield to pursue him. If he is able to avoid a blitz, he could be gone. And, of course, the pressure means that the Hoos DBs have spent a lot of time in single coverage, which hasn’t always gone well (Duke game notwithstanding). Louisville’s WRs are all good, but they don’t have any true game-breakers. So if the Hoos get a good game from the DBs, they could potentially slow down Louisville’s passing game.

Keep Jackson in check on the ground and also slowing down the WRs is a tall task. Jackson is so good on the read-option that he can make big plays happen even when the defense plays exactly right. Most of the time, when facing a read-option, teams will focus on the RB and let the QB keep the ball. But with Louisville, Jackson is a better runner than the RBs. So you focus on him and try to force him to give up the ball. Bear in mind that some of the read-option looks are straight keepers. And he’ll often have run-pass options on those looks.

Louisville’s offense was amazing to open the season. They opened with three straight games of 63 points or more, then scored 59 in the 4th game. Since then, though, they’ve scored 36, 24 and 54. The 24 came at home against Duke. Of those 56 plays of 20+ yards, only nine have come the past two weeks. So, has Louisville slowed down? Are teams simply defending better? Do coaches have enough game film now to figure out some tendencies? Who knows.

What we do know is that stopping Lamar Jackson and the Cardinals is a tall order for anymore. It may be an impossible task for a 108th ranked defense in the nation. UNC scored 35 last week, but it could’ve been a lot more had they been sharper. That is the best hope for the Hoos: that Jackson isn’t sharp and the Hoos can take advantage of a few mistakes.

Louisville on Defense

DL: #14 DE Drew Bailey, #97 DT DeAngelo Brown

LB: #92 OLB Devonte Fields, #55 ILB Keith Kelsey

DB: #10 CB Jaire Alexander, #25 S Josh Harvey-Clemons

Louisville plays a 3-4 defense that is more like Al Groh’s defense than Bronco Mendenhall’s. The DLs average well over 300 pounds, and the LBs are on the bigger side as well. They are 10th in the nation in total defense, and 37th in scoring defense. They are 19th in both passing defense and rushing defense, though they are 39th in pass efficiency defense. This defense has been completely overshadowed by the offense, but they are very very good.

Thing is, it can be hard to judge this defense based on stats. Louisville has spent so much time with huge leads that they aren’t playing a normal defense. Offenses tend to play differently when they are down 30 points. And teams are going to play differently from the outset knowing that they are facing such a powerful offensive team. Furthermore, Louisville’s defense can take more chances knowing that they offense can pick them up.

Like many 3-4 defense, the DLs are mostly just there to occupy blockers and take up space. Sure, they make some plays. But their role is to allow the LBs and DBs to make plays. Take 335 pound DE De’Asian Richardson. He’s listed as a starter, but has just eight tackles on the season. He usually finds himself on the sidelines in passing situations. In those cases, Devonte Fields slides down to DE. Fields is the best pass rusher on the team, and finished with 11 sacks and 22.5 TFLs last year. So far this year, he has just two sacks and two TFLs, but he’s been facing double teams all year. He does lead the team with five QB hurries.

Louisville is 50th in the nation in sacks, but they don’t really blitz very much. They bring four pass rushers on most downs, only the 4thpass rusher changes from play to play. This is the beauty of a 3-4 defense. A different LB can come one every play, without sacrificing the rest of the defense. Louisville pass defense is a lot like UNCs. They rely on talented CBs to cover their man without having to rely on pressure. A lot of their sacks come from relentless pass rushers who have time to track down QBs who simply can’t find anybody to throw to. Some call these “coverage sacks”, but that gives the impression that this is almost an accident. For Louisville (and UNC), this is the game plan. Of course, with Fields, Louisville has a gifted pass rusher that UNC can’t match.

The team leader in sacks and TFLs is the OLB opposite from Fields, James Hearns. He has 4.5 sacks and 7.5 TFLs. Hearns was originally a Florida commit, but had eligibility problems before switching to Louisville as a late qualifier. He’s got a ton of potential as a pass rusher, and had 2.5 sacks in limited playing time last year. He’s just beginning to figure out what he’s capable of, but he could very well end up being a better NFL prospect than Fields.

In the secondary, the leader is Alexander, a sophomore who has three INTs on the year. Alexander is also the Cardinals primary punt returner, and he’s 13th in the nation. That shows you what he can do if he gets the ball in his hands. For a team that has struggled with turnovers, Alexander is a dangerous option. It would be in the Hoos best interest to avoid him in the passing game as much as possible.

On the side opposite from Alexander, the Cardinals have switched between Trumaine Washington and Shaq Wiggins. Against the Hoos multiple WR offense, both will likely be on the field for much of the game.

Harvey-Clemons is a transfer from Georgia who should be an early draft pick this year. He’s a strong safety through and through. At 6’5” 228, he looks like a LB. He also hits like a LB. In fact, he may play LB in the NFL. He’s solid in pass coverage (3 INTs last year), but his strength is in run support. He was 3rd on the team in tackles last year, and is 2nd this year. Next to him is Chucky Williams, who ends up playing a lot of cover-1 with Harvey-Clemons in the box. Williams possesses tremendous straight line speed, so he covers a lot of ground in the secondary.

Once again, the Hoos multiple-WR sets and unwillingness to consistently run the ball changes Louisville’s defense. Harvey-Clemons isn’t going to spend nearly as much time in the box, because they simply aren’t afraid of the Hoos’ running game. So, expect Louisville to employ more Cover-2, giving the CBs help over the top. They’ll line up with the CBs in press coverage, and try to take away the short passes that Kurt Benkert has succeed with so often this year. This is what UNC did, and they completely shut down the Hoos offense. Louisville is capable of doing the same.

Kelsey is the leading tackler, and he’s all over the field. He’s great in run support, but he also finished 2nd on the team last year in QB hurries and he had three passes defended. He isn’t really a man coverage guy, but he’s fast enough to get outside the numbers and help shut down WR screens or quick outs. Kelsey had 14 tackles against the Hoos last year, though obviously that was a vastly different Virginia offense. Kelsey is another likely early draft pick this year. Next to him is Stacy Thomas, another talented playmaker. Thomas doesn’t quite have the quickness that Kelsey has. He’s very good at covering underneath zones and he doesn’t miss very many tackles.

The Hoos fell apart offensively last week, largely because the easy passes that had been there in previous weeks were taken away by UNC. The Hoos were unable to find another method to move the ball consistently. Benkert completed just 59% of his passes, and averaged fewer than four yards per attempt. That is very bad. So bad, that he couldn’t possibly be as bad this week, even though he’s facing a better defense.

Smoke Mizzell rushed for over 100 yards last week, at over five yards per carry. A decent amount of that came late in the game, with the outcome not really in doubt (though the Hoos scored to make it just a 14 point lead early in the 4th quarter, nobody thought they were going to come back). The Hoos need to use Smoke often early in this contest. Smoke has the ability to make big plays on the ground and the Hoos will need that if they have any hope of staying with the Cardinals.

With the short passes unavailable, and with safety help over the top, Benkert wasn’t able to hit on any big plays last week. His longest completion was just 16 yards. UNC also did a very good job of taking away Olamide Zaccheaus. Louisville has three good cover CBs, but none of them are particularly big. Guys like Keeon Johnson, Andre Levrone and Joe Reed have the size to cause matchup problems for Louisville. They don’t even really need to be open to get the ball, they can use their body and their length to get to balls even when covered. Benkert, though, needs to be careful when throwing those passes, because Louisville is looking to jump a route and make a big play. As I said, they can take some chances, because they know the Hoos can’t slow down Lamar Jackson.

The Hoos have enough weapons on offense to score some points against Louisville. They have to play better than they did last week, but they are certainly capable of doing that. The real question is, can they stop making mistakes and score enough points to keep them in the game?

Conclusion

The Hoos looked bad last week. UNC didn’t even play particularly well, and they won easily. Louisville has, at times, looked as good as any in the nation this year. They can score points in a hurry. They are balanced on both offense and defense. And they have good special teams. In the unlikely event that the game is close late, the Cardinals have an advantage with a two solid kickers.

The Hoos will be lucky to keep this close. The most likely outcome involves Lamar Jackson watching the 2nd half from the Louisville bench.

Prediction: Cardinals 65, Hoos 28