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THE BIG PREVIEW: Virginia vs. Louisville

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Can Virginia start off conference play 1-0?

NCAA Football: Western Kentucky at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

We’re starting to get a glimpse of what this Virginia Cavaliers football team is about. The offense is explosive, full of weapons at every position. Bryce Perkins finally showed what he’s capable of in the passing game, after we’d already seen what he could do running the ball.

The defense didn’t put up their best performance last Saturday, but they made plays when they needed to. Ohio’s offense is no joke, having averaged 42 points per game last year and returned almost the entire unit. So holding them to 31 points is respectable, especially considering some of those points came on short fields.

This week, the Hoos are back to their actual home to face the Louisville Cardinals and open ACC play. The Cardinals are 2-1, with a blowout loss to Alabama and two wins over bad teams. Last week, they faced Western Kentucky at home and squeaked by with a 20-17 win. This is the same WKU team that lost at home to Maine, an FCS team. Louisville trailed by four late in the fourth quarter and survived a FG attempt to tie at the buzzer.

This is not the same Louisville team that went 8-5 and 9-4 the past two years, led by Heisman winner Lamar Jackson. Jackson is now in the NFL with the Baltimore Ravens, and the Cardinals have not yet had success finding his replacement. But QB isn’t the only problem. In 2016, Louisville had the 19th ranked defense in the country, per S&P. Last year, they were 84th. That’s why they were ranked as high as No. 6 in 2016 and unranked by the middle of last season.

The game will be played at Scott Stadium at 12:30 Eastern and will air on ACC’s regional sports networks and will be streamable on WatchESPN. Let’s get on to the matchups.

Virginia on Offense

Through three weeks, the Virginia offense ranks 40th in the nation in S&P. They are 60th in the nation in passing offense and 34th in rushing which, even with light opposition, is an improvement over previous years.

The offense also passes the eye test, as they simply look more dynamic and explosive than they have in a long time. A big part of that comes from QB Bryce Perkins and his running ability. Last week, though, Ohio game-planned to take away his running. They played a soft zone defense and they kept eight in the box on most plays. In essence, they decided to force other guys to beat them.

That didn’t work out very well, as Jordan Ellis rushed for 171 yards and Perkins completed 25-of-30 attempts for 379 yards and three touchdowns. That highlights the benefit of a running QB. It is a “pick your poison” scenario. If the defense plays man defense, that gives Perkins running room. If they choose to play a soft zone, the passing lanes are open. Now, let’s not confuse Ohio’s defense with the better defenses in the ACC. A good defense likely wouldn’t get beaten on the outside for a pair of 75+ yard TDs. They’d keep those plays in front of them, and probably make the tackle for a shorter gain. But Perkins showed he can make enough plays with his arm to keep defenses honest.

Early in the season, Louisville’s defense ranks 67th in S&P. They’re 85th in total defense, 94th in rushing defense and 56th in passing defense. Obviously, a big part of that is the opener against Alabama. Everybody’s numbers look worse after facing the Tide, and 51-14 is actually the closest game Alabama’s played this year.

Lamar Jackson is without question the biggest loss for the Cardinals from last year, but he wasn’t the first Louisville Cardinal off the board in the NFL Draft. That honor went to CB Jaire Alexander. Although Alexander missed half the season with an injury, he was the best player on the Cardinal’s defense. He’s a shutdown corner, and the defense has struggled without him so far this season.

Alexander isn’t the only defender who moved on. Louisville is replacing almost the entire defense from last year. Just two guys who started last season’s bowl game are in the starting lineup this week. On top of that, they also replaced their defensive coordinator. No surprise, then, that the defense is struggling a bit.

Right now, the team’s leading tackler is DE Tabarius Peterson. It’s rare for a lineman to lead a team in tackles. More than anything else, it’s a reflection of there being no great playmaker on the defense right now. Peterson came to college as a LB, so he’s very quick for a DE, which makes him tough to handle for an OT. Look for the Hoos to give help to the OTs attempting to block Peterson.

Louisville will rotate a number of guys on the DL. Freshman Jarrett Jackson, a reserve DE, is tied for the team lead in sacks with NT G.G. Robinson. Robinson started five times last year, making him one of the most experienced players on this defense.

Second and third in tackles this year are a pair of strong safeties. Both Dee Smith and London Iakopo have played well, but they are often making tackles 8-10 yards downfield. When Louisville goes into a nickel package, they use an extra safety. At times it’s Iakopo, and at times it’s FS TreSean Smith. That’ll depend on game situation, as Smith is a much better cover man.

MLB Dorian Etheridge did not play against WKU after getting injured against Indiana State. He is expected to return this week, though that is not certain. Rob Hicks started in his stead and played pretty well. Hicks is nowhere near as fast as Etheridge, but he’s 20 pounds bigger. They are different players. Considering how the Hoos used their speed to their advantage last week, they likely prefer the bigger, slower guy.

Even without Etheridge, Louisville has a lot more team speed than Ohio did. The secondary is where this will demonstrate itself the most. Ohio simply did not have the speed to stay with Zaccheaus. That isn’t the case with Louisville. Yes, they miss Alexander, and the entire secondary from last year is replaced. But CBs Rodjay Burns and P.J. Mbanasor are both very fast and talented. Burns was an Ohio State recruit before transferring to Louisville and he’s the Cardinal’s primary return man. He’s very dangerous in the return game.

Because of all the youth and inexperience, Louisville is going to play a pretty soft defense. They might play some man underneath, but they’ll always have safeties deep. And they’ll be in a zone most of the time. They also won’t blitz much. This probably means Bryce Perkins will have time to throw again, but may not have much running room. Last week showed us that he’s capable of taking what the defense gives him in the passing game. That’ll be key again this week. Louisville undoubtedly has experience defending mobile QBs. They’ll probably try to keep Perkins from getting going on the ground. Look for most teams to do that as we go forward this season.

Against WKU, there were a lot of plays where the middle of the defense was open once the RBs got beyond the line of scrimmage. The interior of the UVA OL has been pretty good at opening up holes in the middle for Jordan Ellis and the running game. If those holes are open again, Ellis will have another big game.

One of the problems that Louisville has had is getting off the field on third down. Right now, they’re 117th in the nation, giving up almost 50% conversion rate. Virginia is 13th nationally in converting third downs. Those two trends could well determine this game. If Virginia continues to convert at a high rate, they’ll likely win this game.

Virginia on Defense

The Cardinal offense hasn’t really changed with Jackson gone. They still play a mobile QB and run a lot of zone-read-option. The problem is, the QB who was expected to lead the team just hasn’t gotten it done. That’s Jawon Pass, who is just 28-for-56 passing on the year. He’s thrown four INTs and just two TDs. That’s not a good ratio. He’s a dangerous runner, but because his passing has been so poor, he’s accounted for just seven yards rushing on 15 carries (that includes sacks). Pass’ brother is the starting FS, which gives an idea of how athletic he is.

Pass has been benched in the past two games, in favor of redshirt freshman Malik Cunningham. Cunningham is supposed to be raw as a passer, but he’s looked good, completing 16-of-25 with a TD and no INTs. Because of the split time, neither of them is qualified for NCAA stat leaderboards, but neither would be above 95th in the nation in yards per attempt or above 110th in passer rating.

Head coach Bobby Petrino has announced that Cunningham will start this week, but the Hoos should be prepared to face both QBs. Luckily, they are similar QBs. The main difference is that Pass is 6’4, 230 and Cunningham is 6’1, 190. That’s a big difference. In fact, Cunningham was not really seen as a college QB because of his lack of size. Many teams recruited him as a DB. He’s certainly athletic enough to be a DB. In HS, Cunningham was essentially a running back taking snaps. He’s proven to be an adequate passer, though.

The one place where Louisville isn’t young is WR, led by senior Jaylen Smith, who many thought would go pro after last season. Smith is big (6’3, 219), fast, and has good hands. He had 980 yards receiving last year, averaging over 16 yards per catch. He’s like Olamide Zaccheaus and Joe Reed in one package. He’s not nearly as quick as OZ, but he’s certainly capable of taking a short pass and taking it to the house. But he’s also bigger than Reed and is a true deep threat. He leads the team this year with six catches for 98 yards. Right on his heals is junior Seth Dawkins, who has six for 96 yards. Dawkins is also big, but isn’t quite as fast or talented as his teammate. That duo will pose a problem for the Wahoo secondary this week.

Virginia has played a lot of single coverage on the outside. For the most part, the coverage has been solid, but good WRs are making plays. That’s the problem with single coverage. A good pass and a good catch beat single coverage. If there’s help over the top, then good coverage usually wins out. But since the Hoos haven’t really been able to generate pressure without bringing extra pass rushers, we’ve seen a lot of single coverage, especially on Bryce Hall’s side of the field.

Because of the struggles at QB, Louisville has been much more successful running the ball than passing this year. As a team, the Cardinals are averaging just over four yards per carry, but that includes the 0.6 yards per carry they averaged against Alabama, which isn’t reflective of their performance against most teams. The past two weeks, they averaged over five yards per carry. Much of that has come from Cunningham, who’s averaging over 90 yards rushing per game the past two weeks, averaging 5.5 yards per carry. The top RB is Dae Williams, who is 6’2, 230. The Hoos had some trouble with Indiana’s bigger RB, so Williams is key. Unsurprisingly, he’s very good in short yardage.

The strength of Louisville’s offense is really the OL. This is a big, experienced unit. The two OTs are 320 and 355 and both are good. LT Mekhi Becton is from the Richmond area and was a big time target of Coach Mendenhall. He’s just a sophomore, but he’s played well thus far. The weak point of the OL, if you could call it that, is C Nate Scheler. He’s the only guy under 300 pounds, he’s inexperienced and he’s struggled at times to keep defenders from getting push up the middle. At NT, Jordan Redmond could impact this game in a big way.

With Cunningham at QB, the Hoos need to focus on stopping the run. Easier said than done, but the Hoos looked better in their run fits this week. Ohio’s offense is no joke, and the Hoos shut down the run game for the most part. Cunningham is a dangerous runner, with speed and quickness. The RBs are good, but they really aren’t as dangerous as Cunningham. Does that mean the Hoos will focus on Cunningham in the zone-read? Maybe. More likely, they’ll change things up to try to confuse the young signal caller. Keeping Cunningham from getting comfortable is the most important thing this week.

Conclusion

This Louisville team is not the same team that piled up yards and points over the past two years, winning games and putting scares into Clemson and the rest of the ACC. They are very young, so the future may be bright, but right now they aren’t getting it done.

Although the Hoos are also young, they have enough veterans to lean on that they aren’t suffering the same growing pains that Louisville is. The Cardinals have talent, so it may be a good thing that the Hoos get them so early this year.

Right now, the Hoos are playing well, they get the home crowd in front of them and look poised to continue building momentum this season.

Prediction: Hoos 30, Cardinals 17 (season record 2-1)