Spread: Virginia -4.5
How to Watch / Listen: 12:30 p.m. Saturday on ACC Network (WAVE3 locally)
Last Time: Coming off a bye week, the Cards fell behind early 7-0 on a seven yard run from Chris Sharp. But Lamar Jackson answered back with a 68-yard touchdown run of his own, and from there the Cards rallied with a big win. Jackson’s 342 total yards (195 passing, 147 rushing) and four touchdowns helped Louisville secure a 38-21 win in Louisville. Also leading the way was Jaylen Smith (five receptions, 84 yards, two touchdowns) and Dae Williams (15 carries, 88 yards, one touchdown), while Louisville also compiled 493 total yards and forced two turnovers.
Louisville leads the all-time series 4-2.
The State of the Virginia Cavaliers
In his third year at Virginia, head coach Bronco Mendenhall is still in progress on turning around the Cavaliers football program. They went 2-10 in Mendenhall’s first season back in 2016, but rebounded with a 6-7 record last year (that included Virginia’s first bowl game in six seasons, losing to Navy in the Military Bowl). Prior to this offseason, Virginia’s notable losses included quarterback Kurt Benkert, and longtime defensive standouts Quin Blanding and Micah Kiser.
Despite that, Virginia enters tomorrow’s game against the Cardinals with a 2-1 record, holding wins against Richmond (42-13) and Ohio (45-31). Their lone loss comes at Indiana, where they fell short 20-16 in the winding seconds of the game.
Key Players: QB Bryce Perkins, RB/WR Olamide Zaccheaus, S Juan Thornhill
As mentioned earlier, one of Mendenhall’s toughest tasks this offseason was finding a suitable replacement for Benkert. So far, he has that covered with dual-threat quarterback Bryce Perkins, a JUCO standout from Arizona Western. Perkins has an ability to make plays with his feet, enabling Mendenhall to change his offense to more of a run-heavy style. It’s similar to what he ran at BYU, when he had Taysom Hill running his system.
Virginia has a lot better playmakers now, compared to when Louisville was introduced in the ACC. It starts with Perkins, but it also extends down to their running back duo Jordan Ellis and Olamide Zaccheaus. Ellis is a power back that complements Perkins’ speed, able to run between the tackles and get 4-5 yards at least. Already with five touchdowns this season, Ellis could challenge Louisville’s front seven and shed some arm tackles.
They also have Olamide Zaccheaus, who is probably their biggest playmaker on offense. He is listed as a running back, but he is probably the best receiver on the team. While Perkins and Ellis have been dominating the reps in the backfield, they’ve used Zaccheaus mostly as a receiver all over the field. Zaccheaus is coming off a career-high 247 yards and two touchdowns against Ohio, and is certainly a mismatch against Louisville’s secondary with his top-end speed and agility.
Mendenhall also had to spend this offseason finding guys who could replace long time defensive playmakers Quin Blanding and Micah Kiser. The next big playmaker for Virginia’s defense looks like it will be safety Juan Thornhill. Thornhill is one of the team leaders in tackles (17), and had an interception and blocked kick returned for a two-point conversion at Indiana.
Perkins & Ellis v. Louisville Front Seven
Much like the last two weeks, it will be the same question for Louisville’s front seven. Can they set the tone early and contain Virginia’s running game? Louisville has struggled in recent weeks against the running games of Indiana State and Western Kentucky, and WKU’s backup quarterback (Davis Shanley) had some nice plays against them that set up scoring drives for the Toppers. In particular, the Toppers jumped to an early 14-0 lead because they did their job in the running game, and Louisville had to work basically the entire game to overcome that with a late victory.
Virginia is averaging 220 yards per game on the ground, and it’s mostly because Ellis is averaging 7.45 yards per carry. Add Perkins’ running ability to the mix, and that is a lot of tough assignments for Louisville to cover. They have to get a push on Virginia’s line and force the Cavs into third-and-long situations, or it could be a long day for the defense.
Even if Louisville stops the running game, they’ll also have to be mindful of Perkins’ throwing ability. Perkins is coming off a spectacular performance last weekend against Ohio, completing 25-of-30 passes for 379 yards and three touchdowns. It’ll be a tough matchup for a Louisville front seven that hasn’t played up to their standards to start the season.
Olamide Zaccheaus v. Louisville Secondary
This is a matchup that Virginia should be trying to exploit as much as possible. Zaccheaus is a legitimate receiver that has burner speed, and will get open often. Like Perkins, he is also coming off a career performance against Ohio, where he caught nine passes for 247 yards and two touchdowns. Both of his touchdowns were short passes where he simply outran the Ohio secondary.
It would be tough to match a performance like that again. But if Louisville isn’t careful, Zaccheaus could end up dominating Louisville’s defense like Greg Dortch did last year for Wake Forest. They’ll have to key on him and prevent him from making plays, whether that is stacking a safety on top of him or simply double covering him with a linebacker and defensive back.
Malik Cunningham’s First Start
Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino is making a change at quarterback this week, opting to start redshirt freshman Malik Cunningham after he came off the bench to push Louisville to wins over Indiana State and Western Kentucky.
The gameplan around Cunningham is simple; get the running game going, and get Cunningham comfortable with a short passing game. The only question is who will set the tone in Louisville’s running game. Against Indiana State, it was Jeremy Smith and Cunningham. Last week against Western Kentucky, Dae Williams scored their two touchdowns to win the game. The Cards still need to find an early down back that can set the tone for the rest of the team. Williams has to be the guy, as he is a downhill runner that can get a solid 4-5 yards every time. Combine that with Cunningham’s scrambling ability, and Louisville’s offense should mirror Virginia’s in some ways.
With Cunningham at quarterback, they need playmakers to emerge and give the offense some life. The Cards currently rank 12th in the ACC in total offense, and 11th in points per game. If I were Petrino, I’d be looking for ways to get their receivers involved, or get Hassan Hall and/or Javian Hawkins some more touches to try and reel off a big play. This is a game where I think early momentum can be the difference for Louisville. If they can establish that early with a big play or two, they might be able to steal one in Charlottesville.