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THE BIG PREVIEW: Virginia has huge opportunity at Louisville

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Can the Hoos build off of a big performance against Duke?

NCAA Football: Clemson at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

At 5-2 (3-1), Virginia Football is sitting pretty in the ACC Coastal. They control their own destiny, and even have the tiebreaker advantage over their top two competitors. The next two weeks may determine the Coastal division as Virginia plays two conference games on the road. If Virginia comes away with even one of those wins, they’ll really be in the driver’s seat.

This is a big opportunity for the Hoos. They’re coming off perhaps their best performance of the season, but it’ll take a win on the road against a surprisingly good Louisville team. This isn’t a situation Virginia has handled well recently (ever?).

A year ago, Virginia was 4-1 in the ACC before losing their final three games (the two on the road ending in OT). Two years ago, they were 3-2 in conference and went to Louisville and lost 38-21 kicking off a four game losing streak. In each of Coach Mendenhall’s season, the Hoos have won exactly one road conference game.

The Cardinals are 4-3 (2-2) after finishing last season 0-8 in conference and changing the coaching staff. At home, they’ve beaten Eastern Kentucky and Boston College and lost to Notre Dame and Clemson. Louisville also gave Wake Forest their only loss to date, a 62-59 win in Winston-Salem. That might be the best win in the ACC this season for any team.

Virginia on Defense

There’s an old adage in football that says “if you have two QBs, you really have zero QBs”. Well, Louisville has three, so what does that mean? Junior Juwon Pass started the first two games, after starting nine last year. He hasn’t played since, although he remained atop the depth chart for two more games.

Now the “starter” is sophomore Micale Cunningham and Pass is third string. Cunningham led the team in rushing last year, despite only starting three times. Of course, with only 497 yards, that’s not exactly impressive (he did average an impressive 6.3 yards per carry). The past two games, Cunningham has lost a lot of snaps to true freshman Evan Conley. Conley is more of a drop-back passer than the other two, although he did this against Wake Forest:

He’s got some wheels.

You may remember that Louisville’s offense was pretty bad last year. They were 108th in total offense, 101st in rushing offense and 88th in passing offense. They were also 121st in scoring offense. That’s a big part of why they were winless in the ACC. This year, they’re 27th in total offense, 24th in rushing offense and 40th in scoring offense. They’re still not much of a threat through the air (107th), which is part of why Conley is getting more snaps.

Regardless of who is taking snaps, this offense is built around the run. And that starts with redshirt freshman RB Javian Hawkins. Hawkins played in three games last year, but preserved his redshirt. He also put on 10 pounds since last year, and is 15th in the country in rushing this season. He has blazing speed and is averaging 5.5 yards per carry. They also have Hassan Hall, a bigger back who often plays in short yardage.

We’ll see a lot of zone-read, especially with Cunningham. They’ll use a lot of misdirection, including jet sweeps and decoys. They’ll often play with a pair of two or even three in the backfield with the QB.

This really isn’t that different from Duke, though Duke has an established QB. The Blue Devils had just 60 total yards in the first half, and by the time they had crossed midfield they were trailing by 27 points. Louisville’s offense is better, largely because their OL is better. Junior LT Mekhi Becton is a beast at 369 pounds and could go in the first round of this year’s draft. Opposite him is 5th year senior Tyler Haycraft, a former walk-on, and in the middle is Florida grad transfer T.J. McCoy. Other than Becton, the OL averages just 297 pounds.

Despite being a ground based offense, the Cardinals are 106th in the nation in sacks allowed. The OL is better on the ground than in pass protection. If Virginia can get the Cardinals into second or third and long, that devastating pass rush will have a field day. Forcing a few turnovers like they did last week would help tremendously.

Virginia on Offense

Last week, Bryce Perkins rushed 22 times (19 in the first half). A year ago, Bryce averaged 14 carries per game and this year he’s down to 12. That doesn’t seem like much, but Virginia’s offense is at its best when Perkins is a threat to run.

Perkins also hadn’t seemed 100% running the ball this season prior to this week. Check out Perkins on this scramble. This is the most dynamic he’s looked all season.

This is a designed draw. Yes, it comes up short, but it’s close and Perkins then picked up the first down with another draw on 4th down. This is what Virginia fans were used to seeing last year. Perkins on the run, making people miss, hurdling defenders.

There’s another hurdle. It seemed we weren’t seeing as much of that. Bronco commented in his postgame press conference that they hadn’t been running Perkins as much because of Brennan Armstrong’s injury. Without a backup QB they were comfortable with, they wouldn’t risk Perkins more than was necessary. Perhaps this is why last week was Virginia’s best rushing performance of the season (not including W&M). The threat of Perkins runs makes the offense so much better.

Figure on seeing even more of that this week. The Cardinals run defense is poor, ranking 98th in the nation. Their total defense is 111th and their passing defense is 107th (passing efficiency defense is 98). As a team, they allow almost five yards per rush. They are also 125th in sacks and 126th in tackles for loss.

The Cardinals are in their first season playing a 3-4 under the new coaching staff. Wahoo fans can attest to the transition from 4-3 to 3-4 being painful. The DL is an experienced unit, but experienced in an entirely different scheme. They’re also undersized, not unexpected for 4-3 DLs. The DEs are both around 250 pounds. Virginia’s average 288. That’s a big difference, and should show up with a strong ground game. The Virginia OL has struggled all year, but they have a massive size advantage in this game and need to just push the Cardinals front 7 around.

The LBs are the stars of this defense, led by WLB Rodjay Burns. He leads the team in TFLs, sacks (tied), is third in tackles and also has an INT, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. He’s got to be accounted for, especially on Perkins’ draws. The other star here is FS Khane Pass (Jawon’s brother). Pass leads the team in tackles and is a very physical player. He’s a guy to watch coming up to make a big hit on a RB. But Pass isn’t great in pass coverage. Louisville can be beaten over the middle, especially on the quick passes Bryce Perkins loves.

Western Kentucky scored on this play:

Which looks an awful lot like this play from the ODU game:

This is obviously something both Virginia and Louisville have seen on film. Still, this is something to look for.

In Virginia’s two losses, they’ve struggled to protect Bryce Perkins and open up any holes in the running game. Louisville may not be capable of exploiting those weaknesses. Notre Dame’s Ian Book rushed for 81 yards against this defense and Perkins is a more dynamic runner than Book. Perkins should have a big game with his legs. It’ll be surprising if he doesn’t get 20+ carries again this week. Scoring a couple more TDs is possible.

Conclusion

Virginia teams over the past decade or so would not win this game. They haven’t been in these situations very often, and it hasn’t gone well when they have. But doesn’t this feel like a different team?

As they say, “defense travels”. The offense has struggled on the road (and at times at home). But the defense has been steady all game. Clemson and Notre Dame are the two best defenses Louisville has played and they averaged just 323 yards and 13 points. Virginia’s defense is in the same league as those two teams. If they hold the Cardinals to that kind of output, they’ll win the game.

Prediction: Virginia 24, Louisville 14 (season record: 7-0)