Kickoff: 3 p.m. ET, ACC Network (790 AM)
Spread: Louisville -2.5, O/U 69.5 (Bovada)
Despite a career-high 197 rushing yards from Malik Cunningham, Louisville committed three turnovers, including a pick-six on Louisville’s first drive inside the red zone. Virginia pulled away with a 10-0 fourth quarter, as the Cavaliers got the 31-17 win over the Cardinals.
Louisville leads the all-time series 5-4. The home team has won each of the last four outings, and six of seven since the Cardinals joined the ACC in 2014.
2021 Virginia Cavaliers at a Glance
After dropping its last two games, Virginia squeaked out a road win at Miami last Thursday night. The Cavaliers enter Saturday’s contest with a 3-2 record, both losses coming in conference play to North Carolina and Wake Forest. Virginia has averaged 38 points per game in wins so far.
Virginia Offense Breakdown
The 2021 Virginia offense has been all about the passing game so far. While their running game is currently ranked 97th in the FBS (128.6 YPG), their passing game is ranked second with 398 YPG.
Quarterback Brennan Armstrong has taken a big step forward in his development since inheriting the starting job last season. One thing that stood out to me was how often Armstrong is taking shots downfield, especially watching games against Illinois and North Carolina. Coincidentally, those are Armstrong’s best games to date, completing 70 percent of his passes in both games and going for over 400 yards in both, including a school-record 553 against UNC.
Since then, Armstrong has had troubles with accuracy, completing 56 percent of his passes in his last two games against Wake Forest and Miami (FL). The yards per attempt also dropped from 10.1 in the first three games, to 6.5 in the last two. Part of it is the inaccuracy, but also the offensive line has been shaky in pass protection. Wake Forest piled on six sacks while Miami and UNC also had three. With four sacks allowed on average in the last three contests, pass protection needs to improve for the Cavaliers.
Let’s not forget that Armstrong is also a capable runner on his own. He led the team last year in rushing with 556 yards and five touchdowns, and can escape sticky situations from the pocket. Even if Louisville is able to get good pass rush, Armstrong is capable of improvising with some quick yardage on his feet or extend the play to stretch the field vertically.
Armstrong is definitely not short on personnel at receiver. Dontayvion Wicks is a three-level threat that can get separation on any given play, he’s potentially heading towards an all-conference year with 22 yards per catch and five TDs. Tight end Jelani Woods has replaced Tony Poljan as a big-body threat that can be a vertical threat and a tough blocker. Keytaon Thompson is a frequent contributor in the passing game, but has experience at quarterback dating back to his start against Louisville in the 2017 TaxSlayer Bowl (they also use another quarterback, Iraken Armstead, in similar fashion to a lesser degree). Billy Kemp IV led the team in receiving last year and serves more of a role that guys like Olamide Zaccheaus have thrived in under head coach Bronco Mendenhall.
Players to Watch: QB Brennan Armstrong (145/224, 1973 yards, 14 TDs, 4 INTs); WR Dontayvion Wicks (22.3 yards per catch, 535 yards, five TDs); TE Jelani Woods (16 rec., 247 yards, three TDs)
Virginia Defense Breakdown
Virginia had a run of stellar defenses in 2018 and 2019, but have shown signs of struggle in the last two seasons. The Cavaliers finished 96th in total defense last year, and currently sit 95th this season with 413 yards allowed per game. That number is slightly bloated after North Carolina gashed them for 392 rushing yards (over 700 total) three weeks ago, but UVA has allowed 372 rushing yards in its last two games as well.
Linebacker Noah Taylor returned after being one of the big playmakers last year for Virginia, and he should especially be a focal point after last year’s game. Taylor had an 85-yard pick six against Louisville that (A) led to a 14-point swing in the early parts of the game, and (B) was part of 14 points off turnovers that ultimately became the margin in UVA’s win. Taylor is a solid linebacker in almost every facet of the game, but expect him to be more prevalent as a pass rusher and making tackles for loss.
Virginia was top-12 nationally in sacks per game in 2019 and 2020, but currently sit at 1.8 sacks per game this season. For that to improve, they’ll need more work from the defensive line to eat up gaps and allow linebackers to break through. Mandy Alonso has been solid with three sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss, but getting more production from guys like Hunter Stewart will help them.
The secondary has some experience and talent that should be able to contend with Louisville’s receiver corps. Free safety Joey Blount is very solid as a two-way defensive player, able to play the pass and run equally well. Ex-Louisville cornerback Anthony Johnson has been solid as well with an interception and 19 tackles to his name.
Players to Watch: LB Noah Taylor (3.0 sacks, 6.0 TFL); FS Joey Blount (45 tackles); CB Anthony Johnson, Jr. (19 tackles, INT; ex-Louisville player)
Keys to the Game
- Louisville cannot allow Armstrong to gash them deep
When Virginia is at its best, Armstrong has been able to spread the ball around to his playmakers and be able to take shots downfield. Considering Louisville has been susceptible to chunk plays as of late, as well as a pass rush that has largely struggled outside of the Florida State game, Virginia could have some success downfield if Armstrong is afforded time in the pocket.
Louisville’s pass rush will need to make Armstrong uncomfortable in the pocket and force him to make a rushed throw, or create a turnover. If they can generate pressure constantly, that will at least take away some opportunities for UVA to push the ball downfield and get chunk plays against the Louisville secondary. Also focus on how Louisville matches up against Woods, his size and ability to stretch the field is going to test the Louisville pass coverage.
- Louisville must also create its opportunities in passing
To Louisville’s credit, they have been much better at avoiding negative plays and in pass protection. Louisville is currently 30th in sacks allowed per game (1.4 per game) and tackles for loss allowed (4.4 per game). That’s a large reason why Louisville’s offense has been as solid as it has been, especially with their ability to stretch the field vertically.
All that said, I think Louisville has a decent chance to excel in the passing game. North Carolina and Wake Forest were able to stretch the field and attack the Virginia secondary with deep passes and speedy receivers, both of which Louisville has shown with long touchdowns to Tyler Harrell in the last couple weeks. If Louisville can get some of that speed in space, they could continue their excellent stretch of football in the last three weeks.