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THE BIG PREVIEW: Virginia Looks to Start Winning Streak at Home against Louisville

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North Carolina v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

After an extra week for both teams to get healthy, the Virginia Cavaliers and Louisville Cardinals will finally play this week. Probably. We hope. This is now the fourth time the Hoos have had their schedule changed due to opponents’ COVID-19 situations. The bye week was unexpected, but not unwelcome as the Hoos were beaten up, especially on defense.

The Cardinals opened the season with a win over Western Kentucky and then fell in four straight ACC games, including a blowout loss to Georgia Tech. They appeared to be on the rebound by taking Notre Dame to the final whistle and crushing FSU. They are coming off a home loss to Virginia Tech, but they did hang with the Hokies.

Virginia Football? Well I’m sure you know. After four straight losses, several of which were not really competitive, the Hoos knocked off #15 UNC at home. It was a much needed win and helps to right the ship and get the season back on track. Of course, the unexpected bye might mess up whatever momentum they’d gathered.

It certainly wasn’t the prettiest of wins, as the Hoos allowed 41 points and over 500 yards, and also required a number of mistakes from the Tar Heels. But a win is a win, and the Hoos were certainly happy to get one.

So the Cardinals are 2-5, and the Hoos are 2-4. Both teams have impressive wins and bad losses. Both teams seem to be trending upwards, at least on offense (neither team has done much defensively).

When: Saturday, November 14 at 3:30PM Eastern
Where: Scott Stadium
TV: ACC Network (what else?)

Virginia on Defense

Two weeks ago, Virginia faced one of the best offenses in the nation with an elite QB in Sam Howell. This week, things get a bit easier on that front. Louisville’s offense ranks 31st nationally, with a passing attack that ranks 38th and a rushing attack ranking 33rd. That’s still pretty good, but it just doesn’t seem as daunting as the UNC offense.

It all starts with senior RB Javian Hawkins. He’s 3rd in the nation in rushing. He’s a workhorse, with the fifth most carries in the nation. Last year, he was eighth in the nation in carries. He’s 12th in the nation right now in yards per carry, at 6.2 ypc.

Two very different runs from one very talented RB. He shows quickness, vision and obviously speed.

The Cardinals rushed for 227 yards and three TDs in last year’s 28-21 win over the Wahoos. That included 136 yards and two TDs from Hawkins. But QB Malik Cunningham was also a difference maker with 97 yards and a TD. Cunningham completed just 6/10 passing for 126 yards with a TD, but he was repeatedly able to use his legs to make plays, both on designed runs and on scrambles.

Cunningham has rushed for 220 yards (includes sacks) at just 3.1 yards per carry this year. However, over the previous two years, he’s rushed for almost 1000 yards at almost five yards per carry. Sacks have been an issue for the Cardinals, perhaps one reason they only threw 10 passes in last year’s contest. Last year, they ranked 117th in the nation in sacks allowed. This year, they’re all the way up to 67th, but the raw numbers are roughly the same. Giving up almost three sacks per game will hurt your offense. For example, in a loss to Pitt this year, Cunningham was sacked seven times. They played Pitt close on the road, but couldn’t generate enough offense to get the win.

There’s nothing fancy about this pass rush. There’s really only three pass rushers, with a couple of LBs hanging around the line in case Cunningham takes off. But the DE just shoves LT Adonis Boone right back into his QB. That’s not something we’ve really seen from the Wahoo DL this year, but we have in the past.

With Richard Burney out for the year (again), JMU transfer Adeeb Atariwa is going to get a lot of playing time. We’ll also going to see more of true freshmen Nusi Malani and Jahmeer Carter, both of whom have been getting more and more reps as the season’s progressed.

Obviously, the biggest problems in recent weeks have been in giving up big plays in the passing game. We’ve seen this over and over again.

This is just a four man pass rush, so nobody should be that open downfield. The pass is well underthrown and Dyami Brown almost comes to a complete stop as he waits for the ball. It seems like De’Vante Cross expects safety help over the top on this play, but the safety is 15 yards away. Just poor overall from the defense. The Hoos badly need guys like Brenton Nelson, Joey Blount and Darrius Bratton back in the secondary.

Still, it isn’t entirely the secondary’s fault. Virginia has also given up too many big plays on the ground.

Both of the backside LBs come flying in off the edge without regard for what’s behind them. Once that ball goes to the RB, somebody has to maintain the edge. If one of them does their job, the play is likely either a loss or a short gain.

Part of this is due to the need to get pressure on the QB. Because of the issues in the secondary, pressuring the QB is really the only way Virginia can stop teams from passing the ball. Against UNC, they had five sacks, but Sam Howell had just five incomplete passes and averaged almost 16 yards per attempt. Yes, Howell is a very good QB and a top NFL prospect (for 2022 NFL Draft). But that is an insanely high number. Against Virginia’s beat up secondary last year, Trevor Lawrence (the #1 NFL prospect right now) averaged 13.7 ypa in the ACC Championship game last year. There is just no excuse for Virginia’s secondary to be this bad.

Malik Cunningham isn’t Lawrence or Howell. But he’s got a strong arm and a solid set of WRs.

That is Dez Fitzpatrick, who averages over 20 yards per reception. Their leading receiver is Tutu Atwell, who had 6 receptions for 122 yards in last year’s contest. That’s six out of eight total catches that the Cardinals had in that game. Maybe cover him?

The Virginia defense needs to figure some things out. They can’t cover downfield, so they bring pressure. But if you bring pressure and don’t get there, you give up big plays. Of course, when they don’t bring pressure, they still give up big plays. What’s the answer? Other than getting healthy, there may not be an answer. Not this year, anyway.

Virginia on Offense

Boy was that a boost to the offense. This unit hadn’t scored more than 23 since the opener against Duke. Sure, part of that was the injury to QB Brennan Armstrong. But even with Armstrong, they managed just 14 against Miami. And Armstrong wasn’t exactly dominating an NC State defense that has allowed over 40 points in half their games.

Thing is, this offense is not really built around Armstrong. Yes, Armstrong broke the rock last week, and justifiably so. Yes, he accounted for nearly two-thirds of the total yardage for the Hoos in that game, but 25% of that yardage was a catch and run from Shane Simpson.

Armstrong makes a good throw here. UNC LB Chazz Surratt reads the play, but gets there late. If Armstrong hesitates, it’s either picked off (and Surratt probably scores) or it’s a much tougher catch for Simpson. The throw is also right in Simpson’s hands so he doesn’t have to break stride. It’s a good read and a better throw. But the play is mostly Simpson.

Armstrong completed 12/22 for 208 yards and three TDs. That’s 9.5 ypa, which is outstanding, but if you remove the big play to Simpson, it’s 6.5 which is on par with his season numbers. The 55% completion rate is also right on his season numbers. You can live with a lower completion rate if the ypa is high. But the combination of low completion rates with low ypa is killing this offense. Although the passing offense ranks 47th (out of 103), the passing efficiency ranks 88th.

Coincidentally, the rushing offense ranks 47th as well. The passing offense ranks highly because they’ve been forced to throw to play catchup too often. The rushing offense ranks highly because they are good at running the football.

This is Keytaon Thompson, running a pretty simple handoff play. The Hoos have two TEs in on this play, and the left side of the UVA OL dominates at the point of attack. This opens up a gaping hole for Thompson and his vision and quickness take over. He also gets good downfield blocking from Grant Misch and Ra’Shaun Henry.

And of course, the Hoos have had success all season with QB runs from Armstong, Thompson and Ira Armstead. (In case you didn’t hear, Armstead is out for the season.)

This seems to be a single-read and go play for Armstrong. He’s looking to his right, but it’s not there. He sees the blitz and side-steps Surratt. Then he basically outruns UNC’s defense. That is a tremendous effort from Armstrong, who still seems to be a better runner than passer.

UNC wanted to bring pressure and Robert Anae knew it. He gives Armstrong a simple read and then has him make a play. If the throw is there, Armstrong gets rid of it right away. If it’s not, he’s looking to get downfield. That’s why you see Chris Glaser running downfield before Armstrong takes off. Once the throw doesn’t come, he knows it’s a run and he’s getting out in front of his QB. Great job by Anae of using Armstrong’s gifts without asking him to do too much.

Louisville’s runs a 3-4 defense that’s not all that different from Virginia’s. It’s also not all that different from UNC’s defense, although the secondary is better. They generate pressure by bringing LBs. This is true in pass defense as well as rush defense. Those LBs are always in attack mode, trying to get into the backfield. Teams have had success running right up the middle against that defense. If the OL opens up a hole at the point of attack, that second layer of defense isn’t there to make the stop.

This is also something we saw last year against Louisville.

The key here is Olu Oluwatimi taking on the NT all by himself. He blocks to the left, which means the right-side A-gap is going to be open. The two Guards are able to get into the second level and engage the ILBs. It’s easy for Taulapapa.

This defense is a little on the small side. The DL averages 278 lbs, the LBs average 223 and the DBs average 188. As a comparison, the Wahoos defense does not have a DL under 280, a LB under 230 and just one DB under 188. That’s a big part of why the power runs are successful, and it plays right into the Virginia game plan, as they are turning into a power running team.

We are seeing more north-south runs from the Wahoos. It’s a different formation, but a similar play to the one above. In this case, the entire OL blocks to the right, opening things up for Taulapapa on the left side. Wayne is 10 yards downfield before he even sniffs a defender. More of this please.

Running wide doesn’t make a ton of sense, and generally hasn’t been productive.

As you’d expect from a smaller defense, they are very good at flowing to the football and gang tackling. Do not expect a lot of wide runs from the Hoos in this one. Everything should be between the tackles to allow the OL to impose their will on the Louisville defense. The Cardinals are allowing over 200 yards rushing per game, and there is no reason why Virginia shouldn’t surpass that total.

Unlike UNC, the Louisville secondary is pretty good. They rank 25th in the nation in pass defense, but 79th in rush defense. As a team, they have just two INTs, which isn’t very many. But essentially this same unit had 9 a year ago. They have 28 pass breakups, which is actually a bit higher than last year’s pace. Pass breakups generally correlate to INTs.

That’s not to say Louisville can’t be beaten through the air. But it should be safe throws or downfield throws. If Virginia can keep Armstrong upright in the pocket, there could be opportunities downfield. Those opportunities would be better if Lavel Davis were back in the lineup. Against this smaller secondary, Davis would essentially be open on every play as long as the ball is thrown high. It seems unlikely, though, that Davis will be back. That means more Ra’Shaun “all I do is catch touchdowns” Henry.

You can’t really see it in this clip, but this appears to be all four receivers running deep routes. It’s Cover-1 from UNC, with a blitz coming. Perfect play-call against that defense, and once Henry gets inside the defender on his post route, it’s a pretty easy throw and catch. Louisville will run a lot of similar looks as they try to generate pressure with the LBs. If Virginia gets Henry one-on-one against the slot DB, that’s a matchup to exploit.

Louisville’s defense may be better than UNC’s, but not a whole lot better. Scoring 40+ again would is possible, especially if they get some short fields, as they got last week off a couple of turnovers. Even without that, there’s opportunities for the Wahoo offense to drive the ball downfield with the running game, with some timely passes off play-action. The Cardinals allow almost 30 points per game, which includes somehow holding Notre Dame to just 12 points. (Notre Dame had 232 yards rushing in that game and possessed the football for over 36 minutes. But kicked two short FGs and had another possession end on a fake FG attempt inside the Louisville 10 yard line. That game was not as close as the score indicates.) Getting TDs instead of FGs in the red zone will be important, but Virginia should be able to break the 30 point barrier and control the clock with the running game.

Conclusion

Neither of these teams have met expectations thus far this season. Both teams have suffered bad losses, though both have good wins as well. Virginia’s best win (UNC) is better than Louisville’s (FSU).

The week off benefits both teams, perhaps Louisville more so. The Wahoos are still beat up in the secondary, but hopefully (for their sake anyway), Louisville’s players are all healthy by now.

The biggest question mark for the Hoos is the defense. They gave up a lot of points last week, but that was one of the nation’s best offenses. But they held their own against Miami after a couple of bad weeks against NC State and Wake Forest. If we see the UNC and Miami defense, generating pressure, forcing turnovers, and shutting down the running game, then the Hoos will probably be victorious.

If we see the same passive defense that’s afraid to get beat, which we saw against the Wolfpack and Deacons, the Hoos will probably lose.

Prediction: Cavaliers 35, Louisville 24