After another poor performance from the Virginia Cavaliers, this time against Duke, it feels a little bit like the wheels are falling off. There is little this team does well right now. Duke had 248 yards rushing. Virginia had 93. Duke dominated special teams, both blocking a punt and recovering a fumble on a kickoff. It was not a strong performance for Tony Elliott’s team and, coming off a solid performance against Syracuse, it seemed like a step backwards.
Louisville, though sitting at 0-3 in the ACC and 2-3 overall, is coming off arguably its best effort of the season, nearly pulling off a road win over Boston College. Not that BC is good, but going on the road in conference is not easy, as Virginia has learned.
The Wahoos are home, where they are 2-0 this season. However, they are three-point underdogs.
Virginia on Defense
Virginia’s Defense forced a punt on the opening drive. Over the next three Duke drives, Duke averaged six yards per play, faced just three third downs, and scored 21 points. At that point, the game was effectively over. Duke ran 24 plays during that stretch and Virginia, arguably, won three of those plays. That’s very bad, and meant it was no surprise that Duke scored on all three drives.
Those first half drives were all without Nick Jackson, who missed the first half due to his ejection for targeting against Syracuse. Would things have been different with Jackson on the field? Perhaps. Arguably, he is the best defender on the team. Not arguably, he is the quarterback of the defense. Not having Jackson out there does more than just remove the Wahoos’ top tackler, it removes their leader.
Duke’s Jordan Waters initially has a huge hole, but it starts to break down quickly. Waters squeaks through a bunch of tacklers and picks up 12 yards. Maybe Nick Jackson makes that tackle for just a 4 yard gain. That’s not exactly a win for the defense, but at least it forces a third down.
Then again, we’ve certainly seen the run defense gashed when Jackson is playing. They looked pretty good against Syracuse though, and they’re going to have to be good against Louisville, especially if Cunningham is out there (as expected).
Cunningham is their leading rusher, with 457 yards (28th nationally), but he is also a very dangerous passer. This is from last year’s matchup.
Cunningham throws this ball 50 yards on a rope and hits his man in stride.
With Cunningham, the team is currently ranked 25th in rushing offense but 95th in passing offense. Last year was similar (23rd in rushing, 88th in passing). Last season’s team had 504 rush attempts against 364 pass attempts. It isn’t quite as stark a difference this year, but the pass game has been very inefficient this year (100th nationally in pass efficiency after ranking 40th last year).
Louisville’s backup QB, Brock Domann, is at his fifth different collegiate stop, but his first in D-I. He is an alumnus of Netflix’ Last Chance U (Independence Community College in Kansas). Could he make that throw above? Maybe. Has he ever done it at an ACC level? No. Maybe Domann is good. But he clearly isn’t as good as or as experienced as Cunningham, who is one of the best QBs to play for a program that has had Lamar Jackson and Teddy Bridgewater come through in recent years. Cunningham will likely end his career third in Louisville history in both pass yards and rush yards.
If Cunningham is out, it will be interesting to see if they lean more heavily on the traditional running game or if they open things up for Domann to throw more. The guess is they will try to run the ball more with the running backs.
In five of the past six years, Louisville’s leading rusher has been the quarterback. Lamar Jackson obviously was a big part of that, but Cunningham rushed for over 1000 yards last year and is well on pace for that again. Doman has some mobility, but not on the same level as Cunningham. Their top running back is junior Tiyon Evans, a JUCO guy who also played at Tennessee.
Evans runs through a gaping hole here. We have seen similarly sized holes against Virginia’s run defense, and that will be a concern going forward. At 5’11” 210, Evans is a bruising back. This play is his longest of the season, and, as you can see, he was caught from behind. He’s not really a threat to break huge gains, but he’s very tough between the tackles and the defense will need to tackle better to get him on the ground, something Virginia has struggled with this season.
Cunningham’s potential absence is huge for the Cardinals, because he simply IS their offense. It’s also a problem for the ‘Hoos because they need to prepare for both QBs. If Cunningham plays at or near 100%, this game will be far different and far more difficult for the Wahoo defense.
Virginia on Offense
The Virginia offense is broken, I think that is clear. There are moments when it feels like the offense is starting to hum. But those moments are few and far between and are consistently outweighed by a negative play or a penalty.
For the second time this year, the offense was held under 300 yards. Friendly reminder that last year’s team averaged over 500 yards per game with much of the same personnel.
The offense Tony Elliott is trying to install is a much more precise offense than what Virginia ran last year. It incorporates a lot of NFL concepts and plays. The previous offense was more like backyard football. Lots of deep routes and QB improvisation. It was pretty when it worked. It was also ugly when it didn’t work.
These are two third down plays Virginia ran on its opening drive last week. The first one is a nice clean pocket and a nice drag route from Wicks. On the second one, the ball is thrown too far out in front of the intended target. It’s hard to know who was at fault on the play. It looks like Keytaon Thompson hesitates a bit on the route, but that may be intentional. (It does look like Thompson was interfered with, but the pass may not have been catchable.)
On the first play, Armstrong sits in the pocket and reads the defense. He holds the ball for around 4 seconds before releasing it. On the second play, Armstrong makes one read and throws the ball in around 2 seconds.
The first play is Armstrong’s strength. Look at this play from last year’s offense.
Vastly different play of course, but this is a vastly different offense. Armstrong holds the ball for around 5 seconds on this play. He’s reading the defense and also allowing time for his guys to get open. Again, this is Armstrong’s strength. It also plays to the strengths of Dontayvion Wicks and Lavel Davis Jr. The timing route above requires different skills from both quarterback and wide receiver. It requires different reads and it requires more practice. The ball and the receiver have to be in the right spot at the right time and, if either one is off, the play breaks down. That is what we’re seeing far too often.
Could Elliott and Kitchings change things up, and run more plays like the first one and fewer plays like the second one? Obviously, the answer is yes. But they don’t seem likely to do that. Their goal is to install their offense, which includes these timing plays. It also includes more running. Robert Anae got a lot of flack for not running the ball more. UVA is certainly running the ball more now. Last year’s team was 105th in the nation in rushing, averaging just over 120 yards per game. This year’s team is 69th in rushing, averaging over 150 yards per game. By the way, both teams averaged around 4.5 yards per carry.
Some fans are calling for Jay Woolfolk to get a chance over Armstrong. Could Armstrong be better? Certainly. But, as mentioned above, this offense requires a lot of practice, experience, and comfortablity between quarterback and wide receiver. Woolfolk likely isn’t getting many first team reps in practice. Do people really think he’s going to step in and be better without getting those reps with his targets?
All of that is saying nothing about the offensive line. Armstrong has been sacked every 12 drop-backs this season, down from around 14 last season. The difference doesn’t seem very big, but there is a variance in the pressure Armstrong is facing this year. It’s faster and it’s often coming from up the middle. This is giving Armstrong “happy feet”, and causing him to rush passes. Even when the offensive line does its job, you can see Armstrong getting antsy in the pocket. This is not a good way to play QB and it is causing a lot of the problems we are seeing. As defenses get better, Armstrong is going to have to adjust or the offense will continue to struggle.
On paper, the Cardinals run a 3-4 defense, but in reality it is more of a 3-3-5. Starting outside linebacker Ben Perry is listed on the roster as a defensive back and is just 6’2” 200, quite small for a linebacker. His skills are more of a safety than a linebacker and he is used as such.
This far this year, the pass rush has been led by the DEs, with that duo combining for 7.5 out of the team’s 16 sacks. However, outside linebacker Yasir Abdullah led the team last year with 10 sacks (and 17.5 TFLs) in 13 games. Those are outstanding numbers. Abdullah is still among the team leaders in tackles, tackles for loss, and quarterback hurries, so the sacks may still come. As mentioned, Virginia has struggled with pass blocking in the middle more so than off the edge. Against Louisville though, the focus needs to be on the edges.
Despite that, Louisville’s defensive strength is over the middle. The leading tacklers are safety Kendrick Duncan and middle linebacker Momo Sanogo, a transfer from Mississippi. On the outside, their cornerbacks are very small. We haven’t seen Virginia use their wide receivers’ size very much on fades or back shoulder throws. But this may be the game for those throws. First of all, Armstrong excels on these passes. Second, the Wahoo wide receivers should have a huge advantage on these plays.
Again, we haven’t seen this much from Virginia this year. Maybe that’s part of why Virginia has struggled in the red zone (98th nationally). We don’t even know if these throws are part of the offensive play book.
Louisville’s defensive strength is against the pass. The Cardinals rush the passer well (13th nationally in sacks) and cover well (22nd in interceptions). But they struggle against the run (89th nationally). Virginia’s game plan this week should focus on the run game, although we will see what Tony Elliott and Des Kitchings decide to do. Although they certainly want to win the game, and it seems the run is the best way to do that, they also want to continue to develop the passing game and get more reps for Armstrong and company in this offense. It will be interesting to see how they choose to attack this defense.
If Cunningham plays, this game changes dramatically. The Louisville offense with Cunningham can be dynamic when both passing and running. Without Cunningham, it remains to be seen if they can have the same success.
I picked the ‘Hoos last week because we saw signs of progress and I wasn’t sold on Duke’s early season success. Perhaps that was foolish, especially on the road. Virginia played poorly and Duke may be better than we thought.
Mostly, this game is the opposite. Virginia is at home and Louisville has not had the same early season success that Duke has had, although their win over UCF looks pretty good. They also lost far worse at Syracuse than the Wahoos did.
Prediction (if Cunningham is out): Wahoos 24, Cardinals 17
Prediction (if Cunningham plays): Cardinals 24, Wahoos 17