How to Watch: Kickoff at 3:30 p.m. on ESPNU
Spread: Louisville -11.5
Last Time: In a tougher than expected contest, the Cardinals got all they could handle against a gritty Virginia Cavaliers team. Trailing 17-14 heading into the final quarter, the Cards responded with 18 points in the final quarter, including the game-winning 25-yard pass from Lamar Jackson to Jaylen Smith. Jackson finished with 361 yards and four touchdowns, as #5 U of L escaped Charlottesville with a 32-25 victory.
Louisville leads the all-time series 3-2. All three games in the ACC have been decided by one possession.
Meet the Virginia Cavaliers:
Bronco Mendenhall might not win any Coach of the Year awards nationally, but he has done an exceptional job turning the Virginia football program around in 2017. The Cavaliers went from 2-10 last year to achieving bowl eligibility last week against Georgia Tech, and sports a blowout road win at Boise State. The Cavaliers were the first non-conference team to beat Boise State by double digits since Washington State in 2001, and was their first ranked road win since 2011.
Players to Watch:
- S Quin Blanding
In my honest opinion, Blanding is probably the most underrated player in every draft board I’ve read. He does a lot of things that would easily warrant him being a first-round pick; he’s a veteran safety that has the ability to be left alone in single-high zone coverage, or play in the box to stop the run. In fact, he now holds the Virginia career record for tackles.
Blanding had an interception in last year’s game against the Cardinals, and has three this year (including a pick-six against Duke).
- LB Micah Kiser
I’ve listed Blanding and linebacker Micah Kiser the last two years as players to watch for Virginia, and the same applies here. These two have been the backbone of a Virginia defense that, quite honestly, has a lot of quality talent despite their subpar record in recent years.
Kiser isn’t an athletic freak by any means, but he has often been the cleaner on many plays for Virginia. Kiser has had 100+ tackles in 2015 and 2016, and will likely reach that mark again tomorrow. He can play against the run or the pass like Blanding can, but lacks the elite playmaking ability that makes Blanding a possible first-round pick. The duo will have a big responsibility in trying to contain Lamar Jackson’s running game.
- QB Kurt Benkert
As mentioned, the defense has some talent there to give Virginia some promise. What has been lacking in recent years is offense, and particularly quarterback play for the Cavs. The East Carolina transfer has improved his overall efficiency as a quarterback, completing nearly 60% of his passes for 20 touchdowns and only six interceptions. In five of their six wins this year, he’s thrown for three touchdown passes.
Where he’s improved the most, though, is throwing downfield. Benkert has a knack for placing throws into the basket for receivers. It’s also in part thanks to better receivers across the board, especially guys like Andre Levrone (who averaged 22.5 yards per catch). But it has made Virginia into a credible team again, and one that many Cavaliers fans should be satisfied with.
- Louisville defense v. UVA short game.
It isn’t hyperbole when it’s stated, but nearly every team that Louisville has played against has attained their season-high in total yards against the Cardinals.
Virginia could possibly be the next team on that list. They don’t run the ball generally well (111th nationally at 118 yards per game), but can throw the ball enough to burn Louisville’s 105th ranked passing defense. UVA’s passing game is generally quick passing with an occasional deep pass. Think in boxing terms that it’s a bunch of jabs followed by an overhand right.
Virginia often uses WR Olamide Zaccheaus (67 receptions, eighth nationally) on short passes and screens, with Levrone and Doni Dowling stretching the field vertically. It’ll place a big emphasis on Louisville’s DBs to hold Virginia to third-and-long situations. With their bye week gone, Louisville’s defense has to show more effort and stuffing the run / short passing game. That would make the responsibilities for a maligned defense much easier. If Jaire Alexander finally returns tomorrow, that would be a huge boost for the Cardinals.
- Lamar Jackson v. Quin Blanding / Micah Kiser
Without giving an outright prediction to the game, I’d expect this one to be a straight-up shootout. Virginia’s defense has been good so far (59th rushing, 15th passing, 30th overall), but have yet to face an offense with the capabilities of Louisville’s. Their final three games against U of L, Miami and Virginia Tech will be a litmus test to how far Virginia has come (and much the same for how far they still have to go).
When Louisville has the ball, they should look to use the running game more. In particular, they’ll need to lean on Lamar Jackson to get the running game going. Virginia’s losses against Boston College and Pittsburgh showed they can struggle against teams that can set the edge and run. In Louisville’s last three games, Jackson has rushed for 519 yards and seven touchdowns. It’ll be on Blanding & Kiser, two athletes capable of slowing Jackson down, to keep him contained in both passing & rushing.
As a sidenote, Louisville will need to also avoid turnovers. In their four losses, Louisville has had a turnover that directly resulted in points. Playing cleaner football and finishing with touchdowns would ease the burden for the defense.
Other Matchups to Watch
- Andrew Brown v. Geron Christian
- Jaylen Smith v. Brenton Nelson & Quin Blanding
- Joe Reed v. Louisville Kickoff Coverage
- Peter Sirmon v. the Louisville Fan Base