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The BIG Preview: Virginia vs. Louisville

NCAA Football: Louisville at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

A week after reaching bowl eligibility for the first time in six years, the Cavaliers head on the road to face the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. Some reward....

Louisville comes in needing a win of their own to reach bowl eligibility. After opening the season ranked #16 in the nation, they’re just 5-4 and have lost 3 of their last 4. The lone win in that streak was over fellow ACC disappointment FSU. Their wins have come against teams with a combined 12-32 record. Their losses are to teams with a combined 24-12 record.

The Cardinals have won the past 2 meetings between the teams, and 3 out 5 all-time matchups. Despite what has been a large gap between the Hoos and Cardinals in recent years, the two Louisville wins were close games that Virginia could very well have won.

Let’s get on to the matchups.

Virginia Defense

Lamar Jackson.

That’s Louisville’s offense. Do they have other weapons? Of course. But no team in the country relies on one player as much as Louisville relies on Jackson. Lamar leads the nation in total offense, and it isn’t close. He’s further ahead of #2 than #2 is ahead of #10. Jackson isn’t going to win another Heisman, but that’s because of his team’s performance rather than his own production.

Overall, Louisville’s offense is ranked 3rd in the nation. They are 8th in passing and 26th in rushing.

Clemson and NC State were successful at bottling up Jackson’s running, and both managed a win. But BC and Wake Forest were unable to slow him down, as he rushed for over 160 yards in each of those games, at over 6 yards per carry. And yet both BC and Wake won their games. In other words, it isn’t imperative to prevent Lamar from running.

It isn’t really imperative to slow down his passing, although the teams that have beaten him have kept his completion percentage down. Still, last week against Wake Forest, he completed over 61% of his passes, averaged 7.5 yards per attempt, and still lost.

I guess the point is that Jackson is going to get his no matter what. He’s simply too dynamic and too good. Look at this run last week against Wake Forest. The game was out of reach at this point for Louisville. He has the acceleration to get away from the pass rushers, and the speed to get to the edge and the quickness and footwork to spin around the last defender.

He does have some talent around him. This begins with senior RB Reggie Bonnafon. A dual-threat QB in HS, Bonnafon benefits from the attention paid to Jackson. Louisville often lines up in a sort-of “pistol” formation: Jackson, a few yards behind the LOS, with a RB a few yards behind him. Sometimes, he’s joined in the backfield by an H-back as well. They run the read-option out of this look. It’s a different take on the read-option than you usually see, allowing Jackson to run the read-option to either side without changing the formation.

The play above was a straight shotgun set because of game situation. Here’s the pistol set. Jackson has two H-backs who end up as lead blockers to the weak side. He could run that play to the strong side as well.


Jackson is actually running the ball fewer times than he did last year. Is that in order to show off his passing skills to NFL scouts? Is it a concerted effort to keep him fresh as the season goes on? Or is it teams focusing more on his running? Who knows. Jackson is on pace for over 4000 yards passing and is completing over 60% of his passes, after completing just 56% last year.

Catching those passes are a group of big, fast, athletic WRs. Jaylen Smith and Dez Fitzpatrick are the two leaders in receptions (39 each), with Smith as the big play guy and Fitzpatrick more of a possession guy. Seth Dawkins, Traveon Samuel and TE Charles Standberry have all also caught at least 17 balls.

The Louisville OL has not performed well this year. They’ve allowed 24 sacks already, which is far too many when you consider how elusive Jackson is. The OL consists of 2 freshmen and 3 juniors. This has been the same OL for every game this season, so injury and lack of cohesion aren’t the culprits. Mekhi Becton, a true freshman at RT out of Richmond, is 6’7” 340 pounds. Right now, he’s a better run blocker than pass blocker. A quick edge rusher, such as Chris Peace, could have success against him. He has struggled at times with stunts and delays rushes, so Micah Kiser and Jordan Mack could also have success rushing off that side.

For the Hoos, the return of Juan Thornhill is really important in this game. Thornhill and Hall can play the Louisville WRs one-on-one (with some safety help over the top) on most plays. Even in a 3 WR set, Brenton Nelson and company can handle the slot WRs. This leaves the LBs and DLs to deal with Jackson and the read-option. Covering downfield is important. But if Jackson doesn’t have an open receiver, he’ll run. That’s sometimes more dangerous than throwing it. He’s a big play waiting to happen. Even a nearly perfect defensive play can end with Jackson scampering downfield for a big gain. That’s just the cost of doing business against such a dynamic player.

Last season, the Hoos held Jackson to just 88 yards rushing, and kept him out of the endzone. But he threw for 361 yards and 4 TDs (including the game winning TD with 13 seconds left) in a Louisville win. They’ll have to be better against the pass, while keeping up the strong work against the scrambles.

Hoos on Offense

Louisville’s defense doesn’t come close to matching their high-level offense. Louisville is 106th in pass defense (and 115th in pass efficiency defense). The rush D is better, at 48th. They are 44th in yards per rush, but 116th in yards per pass.

Part of the pass defense problems is due to the loss of All-American CB Jaire Alexander. Alexander was seen as a possible first round pick coming into the season, but has missed 6 games already and is not expected to play against the Cavaliers. In the game he did play, the defense wasn’t a whole lot better. But he really hasn’t been fully healthy all season.

The Cardinal defense without Alexander has experienced some of the same issues that the Wahoo defense had without Juan Thornhill. With 2 good cover CBs, teams can run man coverage on the outside. That means the rest of the defense is playing with an advantage. Without Alexander, Louisville is playing true freshman Russ Yeast at CB. He simply isn’t capable of doing what Alexander can.

Even with Alexander in the game, the Louisville CBs are small. Yeast isn’t much smaller than Alexander, though he’s probably not nearly as strong as the junior. On the other side is Trumaine Washington, who leads the team with 3 INTs. The Cavaliers have performed much better in the passing game when going against smaller DBs. Look at Doni Downling’s big TD catch last week (below). Dowling is 6’1” 220 , Georgia Tech’s Lance Austin is 5’10 188. This is the type of play Kurt Benkert will be looking for this week because of the same size advantages.

Louisville’s other problem has been a missing pass rush. They have just 17 sacks in 9 games this year, after 30 (in 13 games) last year. That doesn’t sound like a huge difference, but they had 12 sacks in the first 4 games and have just 5 since. They also forced a lot more turnovers last year, which may have been a result of the increased backfield pressure.

The top two on the team in sacks right now are DEs James Hearns and Jon Greenard. Hearns led the team last year with 8 sacks. This year, he’s has 3 so far. Jon Greenard leads the team with 5 sacks and 11 TFLs. The problem is, they play the same position. Hearns started the first 6 games, with Greenard starting the past 3. They are listed as “OR” on the depth chart.

The safeties are both seniors. They are 1 and 3 in tackles. Both are on the bigger side and both are at their best against the run. Chucky Williams is the better player, and is an NFL prospect. True freshman MLB Dorian Etheridge is 2nd in tackles. The other LBs are undersized, but run well. They can be beaten by underneath passes. Look for Evan Butts to possibly be a factor this week again, because of the matchup advantage he’ll have over the middle.

Louisville may play a lot of nickel against the Virginia passing attack. That will see one of the OLBs removed for an extra safety, probably freshman Tresean Smith. Smith is also a bigger DB and has good instincts. He has good cover skills and 2 INTs on the year. He’s going to be very good in another year or two.

When Louisville is in nickel, the Hoos may try to run the ball a bit. The runs need to come to the edge, or at least over tackle. Louisville’s DTs are both big and are solid run stoppers. Neither provides much of a pass rush. Especially against the nickel, there is reason to be optimistic that the ground game can be successful. The Hoos are still a passing team, and should have success against Louisville’s poor pass defense. But a few good runs here and there will take the pressure off Benkert and company and could open up some play action opportunities for a big play down field.

Conclusion

This is the best offense that Virginia has faced all season. Lamar Jackson is the best QB they’ve faced. Throughout the season, they’ve been beaten by running QBs for big plays. Jackson is basically a big play waiting to happen. If the Hoos play perfect coverage, Jackson can still beat them with his legs. When he runs, you have to get him down quickly, because he’s so dangerous in the open field.

The Virginia offense got back on track in the 2nd half last week. That is the offense that needs to show up against Louisville’s subpar defense. If there are any struggles in this game, Louisville could run away. The Hoos won’t be able to play catch-up in this one.

The Hoos are riding high after becoming bowl eligible. But I’m afraid a let-down is coming. Louisville needs a win to become bowl eligible and I think they come out with more urgency and get an early lead that the Hoos cannot overcome.

Prediction: Cardinals 42, Hoos 28