Everything You Need To Know: Louisville vs. Virginia

Spread: Virginia -3.5

Kickoff: 3:30 ET, ACC Network

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After being tormented for two seasons at the hands of Louisville superstar Lamar Jackson, the Virginia Cavaliers finally got payback with a dual threat quarterback of their own. Bryce Perkins completed 17-of-24 passes for 197 yards and two touchdowns, ran 14 times for 78 yards with another score, and had not one but two highlight reel hurdles against the Cardinals. Virginia’s defense held Louisville to 214 total yards, tallied four sacks and three turnovers as the Cavaliers cruised to a 27-3 win over the Cardinals.

Louisville leads the all-time series 4-3.

Meet the 2019 Virginia Cavaliers

After beating Louisville in convincing fashion last year, Virginia would go on to finish 8-5 with a 28-0 win over South Carolina in the Belk Bowl.

The successful season led Virginia to be named favorites in the ACC Coastal Division, and after a 4-0 start, it seemed like the Cavaliers would be in the mix for a potentially special season. UVA racked up wins at Pitt and at home against Florida State, putting themselves in the Top 25 for the second straight year.

But back-to-back losses to Notre Dame and Miami caused Virginia to fall out of the rankings, and be on the outside looking in. They’re still in control of their own destiny in the division race as long as they win out, but in a Coastal Division that has been pretty even up to this point, Virginia can’t afford any more slipups.

Fortunately for UVA, they got back on track last week with a 48-14 win over Duke. Virginia enters the game at 5-2, needing one more win to become bowl eligible for the third straight season. The Cavaliers have notable wins at Pitt, and at home v. Florida State and Duke.

Key Offensive Players: QB Bryce Perkins, WR Joe Reed

Aside from Trevor Lawrence, not many quarterbacks in the ACC did better than Virginia’s Bryce Perkins last year. Perkins completed 64% of his passes for 2,680 yards and 25 touchdowns to nine interceptions, with 923 yards rushing and nine touchdowns. It wouldn’t have been unreasonable to suggest Perkins could have been in the 3,000 passing – 1,000 rushing club this season, like a certain Louisville quarterback that’s now playing on Sunday’s for the Baltimore Ravens.

For whatever reason, it hasn’t clicked for the Virginia offense as a whole. The Cavaliers are 104th in total offense with 350 yards per game, a far cry from what Louisville has faced in the first seven games of the season (and especially in the last three weeks):

Team Total Yards Per Game Rank
Notre Dame 450.5 30th
Eastern Kentucky (FCS) 375.4 69th
Western Kentucky 339 107th
Florida State 407 66th
Boston College 494.4 11th
Wake Forest 523.9 6th
Clemson 504.7 10th

A lot of these numbers are compounded by Virginia’s offense being among the nation’s worst in both sacks allowed and rushing yards per game. The Cavaliers are averaging 109 rushing yards per game (120th) and 3.33 yards per carry (114th), while also allowing 22 sacks (T-116th).

Virginia also had to replace two of its top playmakers from last year, which has raised the pressure on Perkins to produce at an all-conference level for their offense. Jordan Ellis was a 1,000-yard back that helped ease the load on Perkins in the running game; he was replaced by Wayne Taulapapa, who leads the team in rushing yards (287) and touchdowns (seven), but nowhere near the pace Ellis had kept last year. Olamide Zaccheaus ended up becoming Virginia’s all-time leader in receptions, after establishing himself as an elite safety valve for Virginia quarterbacks.

Despite losing Zaccheaus, Virginia still has a couple of solid options at wide receiver for Perkins. Hasise DuBois leads the team in receiving yards (489) and is averaging 13.6 yards per catch. He can win outside matchups against opposing defensive backs and fight through traffic to come down with the ball. Virginia isn’t opposed to throwing outside fades and trusting receivers to win their matchups, so having a guy like DuBois that can reel in catches is a huge asset for their offense.

Joe Reed, though, is the biggest all-around playmaker on Virginia’s offense. Reed leads the team with 42 catches, and has big play potential every time he touches the ball. Virginia can use him on routes at every level of the field, and that’s before getting to the kind of impact he can have on special teams. Reed has scored two kick return touchdowns this year (five in his career), and has been averaging 39.4 yards per return (second in the FBS). Reed might be the best player Louisville faces all year in terms of special teams prowess, so this will be an area of focus for the Cardinals on Saturday.

Key Defensive Players: LB Jordan Mack, DB Joey Blount

Despite their offensive woes, Virginia’s positioning as a fringe Top 25 team rests on the back of their defense. The Cavaliers are eighth in total defense (270.3 yards per game), and they are the only team in the FBS that is top 14 in both passing (12th, 174.3 YPG) and rushing (14th, 96 YPG). Virginia is also tied for fifth in the FBS with 28 sacks, which also ties them with national juggernaut Clemson for second in the ACC (Pitt leads with 36 sacks, but Virginia also beat them in the regular season).

In each Virginia game I watched on YouTube, their front seven always stood out on tape. They are coached extremely well by one of the best in Bronco Mendenhall, and they are always active and swarming to the ball. This is probably the best indicator of Mendenhall’s job that he has done in turning around the Virginia program; in the first two years, Mendenhall’s defenses ranked 78th and 102nd in rushing. In 2018 and this year, they were/are 47th and 14th. In his last seven years at BYU, his rushing defenses were outside the top 50 in yards per game once. His teams have usually been solid at stopping the run, and now they’re able to in his system.

Linebacker Jordan Mack is the leader of that front seven, tallying a team-high seven sacks and eight tackles for loss. He’s also third on the team in combined tackles (41), behind fellow linebacker Zane Zandier (52) and defensive back Joey Blount (53). Virginia’s front seven can also knock passes down at the line of scrimmage with surprising ease, and they’re the leader in everything they can do on defense.

Their secondary, however, suffered a huge blow recently as All-American cornerback Bryce Hall suffered a season-ending injury against Miami. They fared pretty well against Duke last week in his absence, holding the Blue Devils to 15-of-30 passing and forcing two interceptions. But they will face a team that should be much better at passing the ball, so in a way, this will be the first test for a Virginia defense without their star cornerback.

For Virginia’s secondary to continue thriving without Hall, they’ll need Joey Blount and Brenton Nelson to play at a high level like they have most of the year. Blount leads the Cavaliers with two interceptions, and was just named ACC Defensive Back of the Week with 10 tackles and a pick against Duke last week. Brenton Nelson also has an interception, and De’Vante Cross moved down from free safety to take over as the CB1 after Hall’s injury.

One More Important Thing to Know:

This game may come down to special teams impact, and in particular kickoff returns. Joe Reed is second in the FBS with 39.4 yards per return, and the only player in a Power Five conference with multiple kick returns for touchdowns.

Louisville’s Hassan Hall is third in the FBS with 38.7 yards per return, and has a kick return touchdown as well. Reed and Hall are the only ACC players with kick return touchdowns entering this week.

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Will Louisville’s defense rebound to have success?

After going the last three weeks facing some of the top offenses in the country, Louisville is going to play against an offense that is sub-100 in total yards per game. That’s not to say Virginia doesn’t lack playmakers, they certainly do have them. But instead of expecting Louisville to win in high-scoring shootouts, this one could be more of a 21-17, 17-14 type game where the better defense wins.

If you’re Louisville, the key to beating Virginia is what worked against Eastern Kentucky and Western Kentucky; stop the run, and force the quarterback to beat you with their arm. In their two losses this season (and in a third game against Old Dominion where Virginia trailed 17-0), the Cavaliers tallied under 100 rushing yards in each game. That is a similar recipe to how Louisville got their wins over EKU and WKU; they held the Colonels and Hilltoppers to 128 and 43 rushing yards, respectively, and played great in pass coverage to force punts.

Louisville may have trouble in trying to stop DuBois and Reed from winning contested passes in one-on-one coverage, but a great pass rush could offset that. Virginia has allowed 22 sacks on the year, which is 116th in the FBS. Louisville’s pass rush could be instrumental in forcing punts, if they can keep Perkins from doing damage with his arm.

But Perkins might be the best quarterback Louisville faces in terms of being a run threat, so they will also have to pressure him while being mindful of his ability to scramble.

Virginia is also -4 in turnover margin, which is encouraging given that Louisville’s defense has been increasingly savvy in forcing takeaways this month. In their two losses, Virginia is -5 in the margin. If Louisville can force a few and create a short field for their offense, that would be instrumental to a victory.

Can Louisville’s passing game get back on track?

Everyone knows by now Louisville will make an effort to run the ball, and that matchup with Virginia’s stout run defense will provide some of its own intrigue.

But the area that might get Louisville a win over Virginia is the passing game. Louisville will be looking to rebound after going 8-for-22 as a team with two interceptions against a Clemson defense that is among the best in the country. Part of that effort will be on Louisville’s offensive line to protect the quarterback; they allowed six sacks last week to the Tigers, and are now going against a Virginia pass rush that has been elite. In addition to their 28 sacks, UVA is also top ten in all sack rate categories, per Football Outsiders (sidebar: their defensive line also ranks no lower than 27th in any advanced statistic for that group).

With Bryce Hall out, Louisville’s receivers also have to win outside and create plays for the offense. If not, Louisville’s offense could be in for a long day once again.

Will special teams be the boost for either team in their win?

We highlighted it earlier, but special teams could play a huge factor in how this game plays out. Both Joe Reed (UVA) and Hassan Hall (UofL) are among the top return threats in the country, and both are extremely liable to take one for a touchdown at any given point.

Even if they don’t score a touchdown, field position set up by these returns will be a huge factor as well. It seems like every game Virginia has played this year, Reed either scored a touchdown, or set the Cavaliers up with great field position. That kind of impact is understated, even moreso when Virginia has struggled with turnovers and moving the ball effectively at times.

To a lesser degree, some of Louisville’s success on offense can be attributed to the big play ability of Hassan Hall. He hasn’t been able to take many returns past midfield like Reed has, but getting returns out to the 35 or 40 yard line also has its own impact. Returns like that can build momentum in small, but effective ways for the offense to go out and score points.

For either team, whoever can win the special teams battle — not just on kick returns, but punts as well — will likely set the edge for what should be a very close game throughout.

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