Spread: Louisville -3, O/U 50.5 (Bovada)
Kickoff: Noon ET
How to Watch / Listen: ACC Network (TV), 93.9 The Ville (FM)
Trailing 30-13 entering the fourth quarter, Virginia mounted a furious rally in the final stanza. The Cavaliers scored 21 points in the final quarter, all coming on touchdown passes from Brennan Armstrong. The lefty completed 40-of-60 passes for 487 yards and three touchdowns, including the go-ahead one yard TD pass to Grant Misch with 22 seconds left. Louisville had a chance to win as time expired, but James Turner’s 49-yard field goal missed wide left as UVA took a 34-33 victory over U of L.
Louisville and Virginia are tied 5-5 in their all-time series, with UVA winning three of the last four in the series.
Entering the Game: Virginia
That thrilling victory for Virginia was part of a four-game winning streak in 2021, one that had the Cavaliers reach 6-2 entering the final third of their regular season. But, UVA dropped four straight to close it out (losses to ranked BYU, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, and Virginia Tech), and their cancelled bowl game left them at 6-6.
Additionally, UVA found itself in the coaching market after Bronco Mendenhall resigned as head coach of the Cavaliers. In came Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott to take over, who is currently 2-3 in his first year as head coach with UVA. UVA’s lone wins so far have come against Richmond (by 17) and Old Dominion (by two), all three losses so far have come on the road (Illinois, Syracuse, Duke).
Virginia Offense: What to Watch
Comparing the 2021 Virginia offense to this year’s group is a night-and-day difference. Last year’s group was fourth in scoring offense (34.6 PPG) and led the ACC in total offense (516.3), they’re now 13th and 11th in both categories this season. Even with offensive coordinator Robert Anae leaving for Syracuse, there wasn’t much evidence to suggest there would be a significant year-to-year regression.
It’s even more baffling considering many of the key components that made last season’s group so damn strong are back, including quarterback Brennan Armstrong. Last year, he threw for 4,449 yards and 31 touchdowns, both single-season records at UVA, and completed 65% of his passes. This year, his numbers have fallen to 1,050 yards and four touchdowns, with five interceptions and 52% completion to boot. He’s a serviceable scrambler and his arm is strong enough to make most throws, but the offense just does not seem to be in sync. Whether it’s misreads by Armstrong or drops from the receivers, the passing game doesn’t have the continuity that it did last season.
The receivers, though talented, haven’t been able to get started. Dontayvion Wicks and Keytaon Thompson return once again as the top playmakers for UVA. Thompson did log his career high in receiving yards against Louisville last year (nine rec., 133 yards), and he does have experience as a quarterback so the threat of a trick play is always present with him. Wicks is a dynamic playmaker and runner after the catch, but like his quarterback, has had a slow start to the season. The return of 6’7″ Lavel Davis Jr. does add another weapon for the UVA offense, he is a big play threat with 24.1 yards per catch this season. If Armstrong can snap out of his funk, this receiver group could be the focal point of the offense once again.
Even though Virginia led the ACC in total offense last season, it was in spite of their running game. Wayne Taulapapa led the team last year with 324 yards in ten games, Perris Jones has almost matched that total in five games this season. He started strong with a 100-yard game against Richmond, and he’s been averaging 5.4 yards per carry when his number is called. UVA has given him a chance to be productive in the passing game, as he accounts for half of the team’s receiving touchdowns so far. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him get more touches and get big runs, given Louisville’s lack of success with limiting the big play. In their two wins this season, Virginia has rushed for over 225 rushing yards in each contest.
Players to Watch: QB Brennan Armstrong (52% completion, 1,050 yards, four TDs); WR Dontayvion Wicks (21 rec., 248 yards); WR Keytaon Thompson (32 rec., 351 yards)
Virginia Defense: What to Watch
Virginia got one of the sneaky good hires in the conference with landing Air Force defensive coordinator John Rudzinski for the same position; he led the Falcons to a top-three defense in the Mountain West Conference in three of his four seasons there, including #1 in 2021.
The Cavaliers currently rank eighth in the ACC in total defense (355.4 YPG), but that is a vast improvement from last year’s group that finished second-to-last in that category (466 YPG). The reason for that success has been a solid defensive line and a feisty secondary that has played solid for most of the season.
Chico Bennett and Aaron Faumui have been disruptive at the line, accounting for half of the team’s 15 sacks and leading the team in TFLs (4.5 and 6.5, respectively). They’re a nice 1-2 combo on the defensive line, that should give Louisville some fits when they try to establish the run on Saturday. Senior defensive end Kam Butler (two sacks, 3.5 TFLs, two forced fumbles) is another solid option on the line that gives the Cavaliers some depth.
The strength of the Virginia defense is in the secondary, which should be a plus matchup for the Cavaliers on Saturday. Louisville transfer Anthony Johnson has been productive as a starter for UVA, logging four interceptions, ten PBUs, and 78 tackles in his two years over in Charlottesville. He and Fentrell Cypruss II are a very solid duo at staying with their man and playing on the ball. Safeties Langston Long (37 tackles, two PBUs, forced fumble) and Jonas Sanker (39 tackles, INT, forced fumble) are also guys that can make plays in the back end. Linebacker Nick Jackson has been everywhere for UVA, leading the team with 51 tackles (three for loss), two sacks, and two PBUs.
Players to Watch: CB Anthony Johnson (four PBUs, three TFLs, INT), CB Fentrell Cypruss II (21 tackles, six PBUs), BANDIT Chico Bennett (four sacks, 4.5 TFLs)
Keys to the Game
- What does Louisville do if Malik Cunningham can’t play?
If Malik Cunningham isn’t able to play on Saturday, what is Louisville’s offense without him? Louisville hasn’t been successful at recruiting depth at the quarterback spot under Scott Satterfield, and the receiver group looks to be thin and still a work in progress this season. This could be a game where Louisville’s running game is going to have to succeed, or things could get really hard for the offense to get going on Saturday. Louisville does have plenty of backs at their disposal though, that’s a plus.
If Malik does play on Saturday, I don’t expect Cunningham to be at 100%. That could lead to him being limited as a runner, and it might affect his ability to get into rhythm as a passer. Either way, Louisville has to find ways to get the running game going on Saturday to win this game.
- Louisville needs to take away the Virginia running game & force turnovers
You saw the stat earlier, Virginia is 2-0 when rushing for over 225 yards. Louisville cannot allow itself to be gashed on outside runs like it has in each of their losses this season, and going against a guy that has averaged 5+ yards per carry doesn’t particularly bode well for them. Neither does facing an offense that almost threw for 500 yards against you last season, even if said offense hasn’t been anywhere close to being as productive as last season’s unit.
Louisville, however, did manage to get a few turnovers on Armstrong last year, in part due to good pressure and forcing Armstrong to face lengthy third downs. The Virginia offense hasn’t been anywhere close to its productivity from last year, so Louisville should look to try and force Armstrong into tough throws. Even if Louisville does give up the big play, getting a few turnovers would at least help the Cardinals create some offense. Louisville has to prove they can capitalize on Virginia’s mistakes, if they make any.
- Scott Satterfield’s increased involvement; is it going to amount to anything?
You heard the man himself on Tuesday. Satterfield has pledged to be more involved with the team in practice, particularly with defense and special teams. What that means, I don’t know. What I think I know, though, is that Satterfield recognizes the gravity of his current situation at Louisville.
We won’t know what the changes this week will mean for Louisville as far as what they do on-the-field, but it could lead to some new things. Whether that’s new offensive plays or just tightening up some of the significant issues on defense (man coverage, gap containment in the run game, etc.), Louisville has to show they are playing with a higher sense of urgency on Saturday than it has before. If not, another letdown could happen on Saturday.