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Virginia vs. Louisville: what the Cavaliers need to focus on going into Week 4

If I were Bronco Mendenhall...

NCAA Football: Virginia vs Ohio Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

After a 45-31 victory over Ohio University in Nashville, the Virginia Cavaliers open ACC play this weekend in Charlottesville against the Louisville Cardinals.

Louisville without Lamar Jackson is an entirely different beast, one that Virginia is actually favored over by 3.5 points. To be fair though, even without Jackson, Louisville will be a much tougher opponent than Ohio University. The Cavaliers impressed on Saturday in many aspects, making explosive plays and breaking school records, but they still struggled in a few spots against the Bobcats despite coming out with a win. Even Bronco, who was happy to walk away with another win, saw the inconsistencies.

“In a football game, every rep matters. And you saw the different situations and some of the things that we did well and some of the inconsistencies that we certainly have to get fixed,” coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “The game was an exact manifestation of why we needed the game and why we needed to play.”

Teams like Louisville will certainly try to exploit those weak spots come conference play. So, without further ado, here’s what the ‘Hoos need to focus on ahead of Week 4:

SPECIAL TEAMS

This one gets all caps because if I watch the ‘Hoos miss another field goal, I might go insane. So please, Bronco, for the sake of my sanity, get special teams into shape. Saturday was another hot and cold showcase on special teams, starting with Virginia’s kicking.

PK A.J. Mejia was supposed to be the team’s go-to guy for short range accuracy. But after finishing 1-of-2 on his field goal attempts against Ohio, Mejia is just 1-of-3 this season — with all attempts coming from within 35 yards. This weekend, Mejia’s miss came in the second half of a 10-point game after Ohio had rallied from a 35-7 deficit (aka a time when a few more points on the board would be ideal). Mejia’s 30-yard attempt came off the left upright on fourth-and-1 from the Ohio 13.

Without short range accuracy, the team might have to change the plays called in fourth-down scenarios. Saturday’s miss wasn’t the end of the world in terms of score, but the team probably would have been better served to go for a first down.

“Yeah, A.J. is close enough to bang it off the goal posts,” Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall said when asked what he’s seen from his kicker. “We needed a field goal, just needing more consistency, especially in the critical moments.”

Then look at Tavares Kelly. On Saturday we saw Kelly go from a dynamic return to a poor decision to not fair catch the next. He took a hard hit as a result, and then responded by calling a fair catch, where he arguably should’ve left the ball alone, and fumbled. We know Kelly is young, and he’s clearly capable, but he could use a little more guidance it seems in his new role as a returner.

Right now we’ve got a mixed bag on special teams. More consistency in kicking, and in the decision making that happens when we return, would be a great place to start.

Protecting Perkins

QB Bryce Perkins put on a show this weekend in Music City, finishing with 552 total yards of offense. He loudly answered questions about his ability to throw, and continued to impress with his ground game. But his O-Line showed a little of the same hot/cold back-and-forth that we saw from special teams.

The same offensive line that helped create career highs in passing for Perkins, rushing for Jordan Ellis, and allowed Olamide Zaccheaus to set UVA’s single-game record for receiving yards also crumbled under pressures and got pushed around enough to allow several sacks on Perkins.

Louisville has had a messy start to the season so far, but in a game where they came back to beat Western Kentucky 20-17 at home, it was their defense that made it possible. It was a a sack on a third down with just under three minutes left that secured their win on Saturday, and Virginia should expect the Cards defense to continue to perform under pressure, even if their offense can’t yet without Lamar Jackson. If Louisville is going to bring pressure defensively, Virginia’s offensive line needs a little extra TLC this week.

Maintaining momentum

Louisville did to Western Kentucky what Ohio tried to do to Virginia — they made a monster comeback attempt after their opponent dominated the game early on. Virginia came out hot but stalled once the Bobcats got things moving on their end, allowing Ohio to cut a 28 point deficit to 10.

The Cavaliers did most of their damage on Saturday in explosive first-half plays, scoring 38 of their 45 points before halftime. Virginia had three different one-play scoring drives in the first quarter alone, but they didn’t put up a single point in the second half until there were just six minutes left in the game.

Louisville did the opposite, starting slow but finding a rhythm as the game progressed. After overcoming a 14-point deficit, the Cards escaped with a win over a Western Kentucky team that posted 14 of its 17 points in the first half. Louisville scored 17 of 20 in the second.

If Virginia wants to prevent the Cardinals from repeating a comeback, they need to find more consistency on the field. They need to figure out how to maintain momentum and play steady, successful football for a full game.

Once again, maintaining control

This goes hand in hand with maintaining momentum. Virginia gave up a 35-7 lead, unable to shut Ohio down. The Cavaliers let their lead shrink to 38-28 before another big play by Perkins and Zaccheaus secured the game. If the ‘Hoos can control both sides of the ball, Saturday should be another successful game in Scott Stadium.

“I think the one thing we need to learn, especially on defense, is to finish teams off,” defensive lineman Eli Hanback said. “When we’re up big, we just need to finish teams off. That’s just the mindset we need to make sure things like that don’t happen.”

Hanback is right, the team should’ve finished off Ohio much sooner than they did this past weekend. Mendenhall should focus on getting his men to stop their opponent before they get things going.