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2014 Virginia Football Preview: Louisville

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This week, the Hoos host Bobby Petrino and the Louisville Cardinals for the first time in an ACC matchup. Louisville is ranked #21 in the nation and comes in at 2-0, including a win in their first ever ACC game, over Miami. The Hoos, as we know, are 1-1 after a closer than expected loss to UCLA and a blowout over Richmond. Can the Hoos continue their solid play as they enter the conference season?

UVA QB Greyson Lambert (and his fellow QB Matt Johns) are the key to this game.
UVA QB Greyson Lambert (and his fellow QB Matt Johns) are the key to this game.
Mike Ehrmann

To put it mildly, the Cardinals had a tumultuous offseason. It started with QB Terry Bridgewater leaving school early to enter the NFL draft. That pretty much coincided with head coach Charlie Strong leaving to take the head coaching job at Texas. Not long after Strong left, Louisville announced that they had hired Bobby Petrino and his tarnished reputation for his second stint as Louisville Head Coach. Of course, as we all know, Louisville is no stranger to head coaching scandals.

During fall practice, there were reports that Petrino was fueding with his assistant coaches and even his players. It got so bad that defensive coordinator Todd Grantham was rumored to be on the chopping block, if not for his guaranteed contract. At least one player, DT Jamaine Brooks, left the team because he felt mistreated by Petrino. Petrino has certainly never been known as a "player coach". After all, this is the guy who informed his Atlanta Falcons players that he had resigned by leaving a note in their lockers.

Considering all that, it wouldn't have surprised anybody if Louisville had struggled out of the gate. But they didn't, they dominated a solid Miami team and then demolished a not-so-solid Murray State team. This week, however, they head on the road for the first time. Maybe this is where the wheels start to come off?

The Hoos are looking for their first win over an FBS opponent in 379 days. During that time, they've beaten 2 FCS teams and lost to 11 FBS teams. Maybe this is the game the Hoos finally start getting things right?

Louisville Offense

Players to Watch

#11 QB Will Gardner - Prototypical size for a pocket passing QB. Good, but not great, arm strength. Can make all the throws, but loses some accuracy at times due to overthrowing. Athletic enough to move around in the pocket, but isn't going to beat you with his legs. Also throws well on the move. Very good on play-fakes.

#10 RB Dominique Brown - Played as an option QB in HS. Was seen as a potential OLB or WR for college, but started out as a RB. Possesses good speed and quickness, especially for his size, but isn't a burner. Won't really juke a defender, but will certainly run over a smaller DB (or LB). Solid receiver out of the backfield, with good hands. Not a great route runner, but dangerous on screens and dump-offs. Missed the entire 2012 season with a knee injury.

#18 TE Gerald Christian - One of the top TE recruits in the nation in 2010. Started his career at UF, transferring after a redshirt season and a season spent mostly on the sidelines. Last year was his first real taste of college football, caught 28 balls for 326 yards and 4 TDs. Outstanding straight-line speed for a 250 lb TE. Tough to bring down once he has a head of steam. Still learning how to play TE, not a great route runner, tends to round off his cuts. Not a great blocker, especially in line. Will often play split out in Louisville's spread offense.

#17 WR James Quick - Tall, lanky WR. Good speed, better quickness. Does not shy away from contact, will go over the middle for tough catches. Understands the position, very good route runner. Will help out his QB. Very good once he gets the ball in his hands. Caught 6 passes for 73 yards as a true freshman last year.

#6 WR Eli Rogers - Very explosive player. Fast, dangerous in the open field. Good return man. Will spend a lot of time in slot. Very good on underneath routes. Can take a short pass and turn it into a big gain. On the small side, can be jammed. Good leaper, but not really tall enough for jump balls. Third on the team last year with 44 receptions for 536 yards and 4 TDs.

Offense Breakdown

Most college football fans probably think of Bobby Petrino led offenses as being pass heavy. The chart below may explain that.

Year

Total Offense

Rushing Offense

Passing Offense

2008

49

97

24

2009

20

81

10

2010

9

69

4

2011

29

81

13

Bobby Petrino's Arkansas Offenses

However, prior to that, before Petrino left Louisville for Atlanta, his offenses were known for being balanced and unpredictable. The chart below will give you some more insight.

Year

Total Offense

Rushing Offense

Passing Offense

2003

5

10

29

2004

1

8

9

2005

9

30

13

2006

2

12

7

Bobby Petrino's Louisville Offenses

At Arkansas, between 2008 and 2011, his teams were known for being heavy passing teams. Much of that can be attributed to the presence of Ryan Mallett. Also, the level of competition jumped from C-USA or the Big East when he moved to the SEC. Petrino was likely facing a talent disadvantage when facing LSU, Alabama and Auburn as opposed to Syracuse, UCONN and Memphis. Also, college football has changed over the past few years, with the expansion of spread, hurry-up offenses and the explosion of points. Petrino may have had to go pass-happy to keep up.

The point here is that Petrino is flexible and can lead a run-heavy or pass-heavy offense, depending on the makeup of his team and his opponent. This is a team built do run, with a very good RB in Brown and a rookie QB. He's also without his top WR, DeVante Parker, who is out for 6-8 weeks with a broken bone in his foot. Parker led the team in receiving yards (885) and TDs (12) last year. It is a big loss. Against the Hurricanes, Gardner threw just 28 passes, while Brown had 33 carries. Obviously, stats against an FCS aren't all that telling, but last week against Murray State, Louisville threw 39 passes against 49 rushes.

Another factor that helps the running game is the Cardinals' OL. Led by Rimington Award and Outland Award nominee OG Jake Smith (Smith played OC last year but has moved to RG to help sure up the right side of the line), the Louisville OL has 113 total starts between them. This is a very big OL that is better at run blocking than pass blocking. That isn't to say that they can't pass block, but that they are very good at run blocking. Miami had just 1 sack, and it was on a safety blitz. Coach Tenuta will have to be particularly inventive if he wants to get pressure on Gardner.

The key for the Wahoo defense is going to be shutting down Brown and the running game. Gardner is a capable QB, but Petrino doesn't want to have to rely on him to win the game. He wants to be able to run the ball and use play-action to help give Gardner time to throw. If we can shut down the running game, the Wahoo pass rushers may have a field day against the spread offense. Gardner hasn't ever really dealt with much defensive pressure, so who knows how he'll react.

Of course, against Louisville's veteran OL, shutting down the running game will not be easy. Louisville uses all kinda of rushing plays, running inside or outside, going off tackle, using end-arounds, draws, etc. Petrino is a wiz at finding ways to get his offensive players into space. The weakest part of Louisville's offense is walk-on center Tobijah Hughley. That is a good matchup for the Hoos, who will look to isolate one of their DTs against him. David Dean and Andrew Brown, in particular, may be too quick for Hughley. If the Hoos can consistently get pressure up the middle, it'll go a long way towards shutting down Louisville's offense.

Against a defense like the Hoos, Petrino wants to run the ball. He doesn't want Tenuta to be able to dial up his exotic blitzes. If the Cardinals can run the ball, the Hoos will have to play a more disciplined defense, and that plays into Petrino's hands. Being one dimensional will play right into Tenuta's aggressive schemes.

Louisville Defense

Players to Watch

#98 DE Sheldon Rankins - Came to college as a 4-3 DE with good size and strength. Has put on nearly 60 pounds since then, making him almost a prototypical 3-4 DE. Has very good lateral movement. Doesn't run as well as he did 60 pounds ago, but the added bulk makes him much better at the point of attack. Solid pass rusher for a 3-4 DE. Started one game last year and finished with 15 tackles along with 3 sacks and a forced fumble.

#94 OLB Lorenzo Maudlin - Moved to OLB after 3 years at DE. Totalled 15 sacks and 21 TFLs over the past two years, which included 19 starts. Still getting used to playing out of a two-point stance, and will still slide down and act as a 4th DL from time to time, especially in passing situations. Tremendous lower body strength, really drives into blockers. One of the best pass rushers in America. On watch lists for Nagurski (best defensive player), Butkus (best LB) and Hendricks (top DE) awards. Could be a first round pick.

#13 MO James Burgess - Plays the "MO" position in Todd Grantham's hybrid defense after spending the first two years of his career at WLB. Finished last year 3rd on the team in tackles, 5th in TFLs and added an INT, a force fumble, a fumble recovery, 5 passes defended and a sack. Tremendous speed for a 231 pound LB. Moves very well in space, reads and reacts quickly and can go sideline to sideline. Good pass coverage skills. Better in zone, but can handle man-to-man as well. Disruptive coming up against the run as well.

#55 MLB Keith Kelsey - Prototypical MLB. Fast enough to cover sideline-to-sideline, big enough to fill a running lane. Downhill player, very good coming up on a ballcarrier. Wraps up and doesn't miss many tackles. Not very good in pass coverage. Still developing timing as a pass rusher. Played sparingly on defense as a true freshman, but saw extensive action on special teams.

#19 S Terell Floyd - Fast, physical CB who has moved to SS this year. Started all 13 games last year at CB. Finished 2nd on the team with 4 INTs. Finished 4th on team last year with 47 tackles. Also defended 7 passes and forced a fumble. Led the team in 2012 with 3 INTs. Very good closing burst. Big hitter who doesn't always wrap up very well. Good speed, but better quickness. Likes to come up on the ball. Better in zone coverage than in man-to-man.

#3 CB Charles Gaines - Moved to CB last year after a season at WR. Caught 11 passes for 172 yards and a TD in 2012. Started 10 games at CB in 2011 and led the team with 5 INTs. Scored a TD last year on interception return, KR and on a blocked punt. Will likely return kicks.

Defense Breakdown

The addition of Todd Grantham to Louisville's coaching staff almost completely changed the defense that Louisville runs. They went from a pretty standard base 4-3 defense to a hybrid 3-4/3-3-5 defense. These hybrid defenses seem to be the trend in college football these days. The Hoos basically use a hybrid 4-3/4-2-5 system, although the difference is that the Hoos actually substitute a DB onto the field.

Georgia's base defense includes a hybrid position, in which a single player moves between LB and S. Which, on some level, means that it isn't really a hybrid defense. It's simply a 3-4 defense in which one of the LBs is fast enough to play safety. Or maybe it's a 3-3-5 defense in which one of the DBs is big enough to play LB. In Louisville's case, that player is James Burgess. Last season, Burgess started at WLB for the Cardinals. This was in their old system, which was a pure 4-3 defense. This year, he'll spent more time in the center of the field, acting as a combination ILB/SS.

Like most 3-4 defenses, the DL is basically just there to occupy blockers. The plays are meant to be make by the LBs and DBs (mostly safeties). The top 4 in tackles so far are the two safeties, the MLB and the MO. This is as designed. The two DEs, Rankins and B.J. Dubose, have combined for 9 tackles, or as many as Burgess, Kelsey and FS James Sample each have on their own.

On obvious pass plays, the DL will be happy to pin their ears back and rush the passer, but again the pressure is meant to come mostly from the OLBs. Both OLBs were DEs in the old defense and both are outstanding pass rushers. Neither player is great against the run, as both have a tendency to over-commit. The slow-developing running plays that the Hoos have been using will give these guys a chance to recover if they do get out of position. Until the Hoos prove that their QBs and WRs can hit on some longer pass plays, the Cardinals are going to have at least 7 or 8 guys in the box on early downs. If that is the case, the Hoos should be attacking the edges with quicker running plays. A quick pitch to Parks going off tackle might get him past those DEs with just a CB in front of him (and safety/ILB pursuit from the inside). Those plays could do a lot of damage.

The same old inside handoff runs up the middle aren't going to work against this Louisville defense, not unless the Hoos are able to hit on some big plays in the passing game. Of course, the problem there is that big pass plays require the OL to hold their blocks for a few extra seconds and that will give Maudlin and Deiontrez Mount a chance to get to Lambert and/or Johns.

Louisville's CBs are all on the small side. They can all run, and they can all jump, but our WRs will have 3 or 4 inches and 20-30 pounds on their DBs. If we can get single coverage on the outside, those jump balls will still work. Hopefully, Andre Levrone has spent this week working on timing his leap for those passes.

Louisville held Miami to just 13 points a couple of weeks ago, largely by shutting them down on 3rd downs. The Canes were just 1-13 on third down. Most of those were 5 yards or more. As Schwartz (or David Hale) pointed out, the Hoos are being forced into passing situations on 3rd down far too often. Getting into manageable 3rd downs is going to be key this week. That means not have negative run plays on 1st down. And it means not having negative run plays on 2nd and 6 after the rare successful first down run.

And, of course, turnovers are a problem. Louisville turned 3 Miami turnovers into 18 points. The Hoos have 5 turnovers in 2 games. That is a bad trend. Louisville defense wants to force turnovers and their offense will turn those into points. It is critical that the Hoos hold on to the ball.

Game Breakdown

Louisville beat Miami because of turnovers, special teams and third downs. The Hoos' coverage teams have been very good so far this year, and hopefully that can continue. The other two aspect factors are more concerning. The Hoos have been turnover prone, and have often been stuck with long 3rd downs.

The Hoos offense can be successful, but they need to be less predictable and more assertive. Murray State scored 21 points (although 14 of those came long after the game was decided), and the Hoos can do the same. Getting into the endzone a few times early will keep pressure on Louisville and maybe force them into a couple of mistakes. The Louisville - Miami game turned on a KR TD from Louisville. A bit play from either special teams of defense could absolutely be the difference in this game.

Ultimately, I think the Hoos defense can slow down Louisville's offense. Gardner is a good QB, but he's young and he can be rattled. If the Hoos' front 7 can slow down Louisville's ground game, Petrino may get impatient and put hit young QB into difficult situations. This would play into the Virginia defense's hands. Unfortunately, I don't have confidence that the Hoos' offense can generate enough offense to stay in the game. The defense should play well enough to win, but the offense will just give that right back to Louisville.

The spread in this game is only 6.5 to Louisville, which seems low considering the Hoos haven't won an ACC game in 22 months. Our coach is a better person, but Louisville's is a better coach. And they are probably more talented.

Prediction: Cardinals 27, Hoos 13