As winners of five of their last six games, the Cardinals are looking to earn bowl eligibility for a sixth straight season when they face their new conference rivals, the Virginia Cavaliers. The Cavaliers, however, must win to keep their hopes of bowl eligibility alive.
The Cardinals and Cavaliers played last season in early September. The Cards jumped to an early 7-0 lead, but sacks and turnovers ultimately doomed Louisville. A fumbled punt by Louisville led to an Ian Frye 42-yard field goal with 3:42 left to lead the Cavaliers to a 23-21 upset over the #21 Cardinals.
Virginia leads the series 2-1, but Louisville can tie it with a win on Saturday.
Louisville enters this game one win away from bowl eligibility, while Virginia travels to Louisville in a win or no bowl situation. Last week, Louisville posted its season-high for yards against an FBS opponent with 579 total yards, including 362 from new starter Kyle Bolin and three touchdowns in a 41-17 win over Syracuse. Louisville also ran for 217 yards, including 117 from Brandon Radcliff on ten carries. The Cards have now won five of their last six games since starting the season 0-3.
For Virginia, they enter Saturday with a 3-6 record, meaning Saturday’s game is a must win if the Cavaliers hope to be eligible for a bowl game. They are coming off of a 27-21 loss to Miami (FL), and are 2-3 in their last five games with wins over Georgia Tech and Syracuse, the latter in triple overtime.
Virginia enters this game 3-6, but they’ve played a lot of teams very competitively. Their most notable performance was coming within seconds of beating now #4 Notre Dame at home, losing 34-27 in spite of Malik Zaire’s season-ending injury. Their losses, however, have been to very good teams; in fact, five of their six losses have been to teams that were ranked at some point this season (UCLA, Notre Dame, Boise State, Pitt and North Carolina).
One player to watch out for is RB Taquan Mizzell, a.k.a. “Smoke.” He has a Marshall Faulk or Roger Craig type of role in this offense, as he not only runs the ball, but excels really well at catching it out of the backfield. Mizzell leads the team in receptions (54), second in receiving yards (539), and also leads the team in rushing (537) and all-purpose yards (1076). Canaan Severin is a solid receiver for Virginia, with has 578 yards and four touchdowns this season. He also had a monster game against Notre Dame with 11 catches for 153 yards. Those two are the biggest assets for quarterback Matt Johns, who has posted an okay season with 2,035 yards, 13 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
If you look at Virginia’s defense, there really isn’t a whole lot to write about. They lost three solid players to the NFL Draft (Eli Harold, Max Valles and Anthony Harris), and after having a top 30 defense last season, have fallen to the 90s this year. A few players to watch are linebacker Micah Kiser, who leads the team in tackles with 85, and safety Quin Blanding. Kiser is only a sophomore, but he’ll be one of the ACC’s better players next year or in 2017. Blanding is another solid, physical safety who likes to tackle and is one of their better defensive backs in coverage. Defensive tackle David Dean is a stalwart on the defensive line that the young Louisville offensive line must keep their eyes on.
One statistic that will surprise many is that the Virginia defense only has two interceptions all season, tied for last among FBS schools. They don’t have a significant pass rusher (Kiser and Micah Moore lead the team in sacks with 5.5), and have a -10 turnover margin. For a Louisville team that has at times been prone to turning the football over, this is as good a sign as you could ask for.
Given how much trouble the offense has had all season in various areas, it was very refreshing to see the offense have a breakout game against Syracuse last week. With both Lamar Jackson and Reggie Bonnafon out due to injuries, Kyle Bolin got his second start of the season and earned the starting quarterback spot going forward.
In spite of a rocky start with an early interception and fumble inside the 5-yard line, Bolin finished 24/35 for 362 yards and three touchdowns. Bolin made good use of his tight ends in the red zone, but this time it was Cole Hikutini who had a breakout game with two touchdown catches. The running game was also huge, as the Cardinals finished with 217 yards, including the first 100-yard game of the season by a running back from Brandon Radcliff (10 carries, 117 yards). Jeremy Smith also had 13 carries for 71 yards and a touchdown.
And once again, the defense came away with huge turnovers, including a pick-six by Trumaine Washington. Washington was named the Chuck Bednarik Award National Defensive Player of the Week, as well as ACC Defensive Back of the Week after a solid performance with 12 tackles, 1 sack and the pick-six. Trevon Young and James Burgess also got an interception and fumble recovery, respectively; both led to quick Louisville touchdowns in the fourth quarter to pull away from Syracuse.
The Louisville offense could also be welcoming back Reggie Bonnafon from injury this week, an asset that can help the Cards continue its offensive rhythm. Punt returner Jaire Alexander could also be returning this week, which is a gigantic boost for Louisville’s special teams units.
How Louisville Wins This Game
1. Run the ball effectively. With Kyle Bolin in as the QB in the last five quarters of Louisville football, the running backs have been able to hit gaps harder and get its offense into third-and-short situations. It’s important in this game for Louisville to continue to run the football well, especially if they can contain David Dean. Success running the football will also open a lot of opportunities for Bolin, especially on play action where Bolin had a lot of success last week.
2. Defense must wreak havoc. The Louisville defense has nine turnovers in its last three games, and should look to continue to force them against a Virginia team that is 116th in turnover margin (-10). A few turnovers from the Cardinals defense can parlay momentum to the offense, especially if it results in a short field and giving Louisville opportunities to score quickly. Even if Louisville is unable to get a few turnovers, it’s another game where the front seven can have another solid outing with sacks and forcing Virginia into long-yardage situations. Virginia is ranked 102nd in opponent-adjusted offensive efficiency and does not rank to well in offensive line advanced metrics, either.
3. Contain Smoke. Without a doubt, Mizzell is the biggest threat for Virginia on offense. If Louisville manages to contain Mizzell with a linebacker or safety Chucky Williams in coverage, it can limit what Virginia is able to do against a Louisville defense that is playing better after every game.
Interesting Stat of the Week
Tight end Cole Hikutini had two touchdown catches in last week’s 41-17 win vs. Syracuse. This is the first time a Louisville tight end had two touchdown catches in a game since Gary Barnidge in 2007 (v. Middle Tennessee State).
This is a must-win for both teams. For Virginia, a loss means they are not going to a bowl game, and that puts head coach Mike London in serious jeopardy of his job. For Louisville, a win here means that they are at least bowl eligible, heading into the final two games at Pittsburgh and Kentucky.
All signs in this preview point to another Louisville win. Not only is it Senior Day, but a lot of Louisville players are hungry for revenge after losing to the Cavaliers last season. Kyle Bolin should have another solid outing on Saturday against an underwhelming Virginia secondary, and the defense should continue its awesome play from the last three weeks with sacks, turnovers and pressuring the offense into second/third-and-long situations.
Louisville defeats Virginia 30-14