Everything You Need To Know: Louisville at Virginia

Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET, ACC Network

Spread: Virginia -3.5, O/U 66.5 (Bovada)

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On a rainy late October afternoon, Louisville welcomed Virginia in what turned out to be the most crucial game of their 2019 season. The Cardinals ran for 268 yards, led by stellar efforts from Javian Hawkins (28 car., 136 yds, two TDs) and Malik — then known as Micale — Cunningham (223 total yards, two total touchdowns). The Cardinals rallied from a 14-7 deficit to score 21 unanswered points, taking a 28-21 win over Virginia to advance to 5-3.

Louisville leads the all-time series 5-3, having won four of their last five against Virginia.

Meet the 2020 Virginia Cavaliers

The loss to Louisville would be Virginia’s last of the regular season. The Cavaliers would go undefeated in November, taking wins over North Carolina and Virginia Tech (their first win over their in-state rival since 2003. This would also lead to Virginia’s first ever appearance in the ACC Championship game, and a bid to play in the Orange Bowl against Florida.

Though Virginia hasn’t found much success in 2020 (the Cavaliers head into the game with a 2-4 record), they are coming off a win over #15 North Carolina in their last appearance. UVa has also scored 38+ points in both wins this season (Duke and UNC).

Offensive Players to Know: QB Brennan Armstrong, QB Keytaon Thompson, TE Tony Poljan

Replacing a big time quarterback like Bryce Perkins was going to be a tough challenge for Virginia in 2020, but what if I told you that Virginia had two quarterbacks this season?

That is a reality in the Virginia offense. Brennan Armstrong is the starter that took for Perkins at quarterback. The southpaw is a good runner (287 yards, 3.9 yards per carry, two touchdowns), but hasn’t found his stride in the passing game yet (55% completion, 10/7 TD:INT ratio).

The second quarterback is one that Louisville fans should be familiar with. Keytaon Thompson was a grad transfer from Mississippi State, the same quarterback that led the Bulldogs to a win over Louisville in the 2018 Gator Bowl. The Cavaliers use him in a manner similar to New Orleans quarterback Taysom Hill — a player that spent years under head coach Bronco Mendenhall at BYU. Thompson is an impressive runner in the open field, and Virginia makes sure he will get touches in a game. His agility and shiftiness in open space is a stark contrast to Armstrong, who isn’t opposed to getting tough yards and fighting for first downs.

One thing about Virginia is they have depth in the running game. Armstrong and Thompson are viable options in the run game, but they do have Wayne Taulapapa and Shane Simpson at running back to help out. Simpson is more of the big play threat and more versatile than Taulapapa, who tends to handle early down and inside work. Running back Billy Kemp IV also leads the team in receptions (45) and yards (402), filling a role that guys like Taquan Mizzell and Olamide Zaccheaus have thrived on in Mendenhall’s system.

Tight end Tony Poljan feels like a guy that can give Louisville some problems, not necessarily new ones given their problems with defending the position in recent years. Poljan is an absolute unit at the position (6’7″, 265 lbs.), and even played quarterback at Central Michigan before changing positions and ultimately committing as a grad transfer to UVa. He is a tough assignment with his hands and absurd size, and that’s more prevalent against a Louisville defense that relies on speed and smaller players to get the job done.

Defensive Players to Know: EDGE Charles Snowden, LB Zane Zandier

The Virginia front seven is very talented and loves to disrupt at the line of scrimmage. They’re tied for 17th in FBS in sacks per game (3.33) and 21st in tackles for loss per game (7.83), while also being 32nd in rushing yards allowed per game (126.83). On paper, it’s a huge mismatch for a Louisville team that has already proven to struggle with negative plays in general.

Helping Virginia in this game is that one of their star players has been on a tear in recent weeks. Charles Snowden on the edge is a player that Louisville’s going to have to keep an eye on throughout the entire game. In his last two games, Snowden has five sacks (including four against North Carolina) and 7.5 tackles for loss, and leads the team in both categories coming in. He’s a huge presence on the edge at 6’7″ and 240 pounds with outstanding length and tackle radius, also shows good athleticism with his change of direction and burst off the edge. He can be a matchup for Louisville outside and pose some challenges for the outside zone runs.

Middle linebacker Zane Zandier is a veteran of the Cavaliers defense that also thrives in run stopping. He had three tackles for loss last year against Louisville (12.5 on the season), and was a 100+ tackle player last year for the team. He’s a very smart player that can read and react to a lot of different looks that Louisville will bring in the game.

Points of Interest:

  • Can Louisville’s passing game thrive?

Virginia is really good at getting negative plays with the front seven, but their results haven’t been good when they aren’t creating pressure. The Cavaliers are the fourth-worst Power Five team in passing yards allowed per game (312.2), and have just one interception in their last five games. Despite having 13 sacks in their last three games, they’re also allowing 358 passing yards per game and over 12.5 yards per attempt in that span, including UNC’s Sam Howell going for 440+ against them.

For Louisville, the recipe is simple: protect Malik Cunningham, and spread the ball around to your playmakers. I think this is a game where Tutu Atwell and Dez Fitzpatrick could really thrive against a vulnerable Virginia secondary. North Carolina and Clemson were able to push the ball downfield and find success, especially with outside receivers. Atwell will find big plays naturally just because Louisville find ways to get him the ball, but Dez could really shine as a vertical target in this one.

The offensive line will also have to identify Snowden and make sure he’s covered, because Virginia loves to move him around and offer different blitz looks. Avoiding blown assignments is going to be key if Louisville plans to open up their passing game, especially if they find themselves in third-and-medium or third-and-long situations.

  • Can Louisville’s front seven get off on third down?

Virginia has a good running game, though they lack a premier threat in the backfield like Miami’s D’Eriq King or Virginia Tech’s Khalil Herbert. But their main weakness has stemmed from issues in the passing game; they’ve yet to have a game completing over 58% of their passes, and have just one game averaging over eight yards per attempt (UNC).

But part of Virginia’s own success is how well their offensive line plays. They allow two sacks per game and only four tackles for loss, so they keep plowing and getting manageable third down spots. Those would be good indicators for Virginia’s defense, if it wasn’t for the fact that they are currently converting 32.3% of their third downs (tied for 105th in the FBS).

Louisville’s two wins this year have come when they force teams under 40% on third down (they did hold Virginia Tech to 14.3% in their last game, but lack of early down stops and turnovers were more of a factor in their loss). They will have to create negative plays in early down situations and try to get Virginia to air it out, and hopefully get a turnover on a Virginia team that has already thrown ten interceptions this year.

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