GOSSAGE: Virginia faces revamped Louisville team
Don’t let recent history fool you into thinking the Virginia football team is going to give No. 5 Louisville a 60-minute battle Saturday.
At Scott Stadium two years ago, the Cavaliers upset then-No. 21 Louisville, 23-21, for their first win over a top-25 opponent since 2011. Lacking discipline, the Cardinals instigated an insecure half-time scuffle and turned the football over four times.
"When you lose a game like this, we will watch the video and there will be 15 plays, individually, that if we would have made that play, we had a chance to win the game," Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said. "We just didn't make enough plays to win the game."
A clutch field goal with 3:42 left in regulation pushed Virginia in front, and rowdy students later stormed David A. Harrison III field when the clock expired. To date, most third- and fourth-years remember it as their favorite Cavalier football moment while attending the University.
Last season on Louisville’s senior day, Virginia cut the deficit to just seven points with 1:16 remaining in the contest. Although the Cardinals recovered the ensuing onside kick en route to victory, the Cavaliers had shown grit behind the leadership of then-junior quarterback Matt Johns, who threw four touchdown passes.
“You know, it was hard,” Petrino said. “It was a hard game. [Virginia] moved the ball. They did a good job with their plan. They got the ball out of [Johns's] hand quick. … But we did finish the game strong. It was a great drive there to score that last touchdown.”
Several pieces from either — or both — of the games remain present as Virginia and Louisville reconvene this week in Charlottesville. Senior running back Taquan Mizzell, junior wide receiver Doni Dowling, junior safety Quin Blanding, senior nose tackle Donte Wilkins and junior linebacker Micah Kiser, to name a few, were a part of those Cavalier teams that played the Cardinals tough.
Kiser contributed primarily on special teams in 2014. He did not record a single tackle in the upset over Louisville. Now, Kiser is the voice of his Virginia unit.
“We had a defensive meeting, and [Kiser] literally said that [we have played Louisville tough before]," Wilkins said. "Two years ago we beat them at home, and last year we should have beat them. It’s just another game.
Louisville returns a number of talented upperclassmen, several of whom have a record of success against the Cavaliers.
Senior wide receiver James Quick tallied his first career touchdown reception in that 2014 loss against Virginia. Since then, he has hauled in 11 more touchdown passes. This season, Quick has been the Cardinals’ leading receiver, with 32 catches for 523 yards and four touchdowns.
Senior linebacker Keith Kelsey recorded a game-high 11 tackles and added a sack in the 2014 defeat in Charlottesville. Last season against Virginia, Kelsey again led his team in tackles with 14.
After watching the upset unfold from the sidelines in 2014, senior tight end Cole Hikutini and senior running back Brandon Radcliff both got the better of the Cavaliers in 2015. Hikutini caught four passes for 59 yards and a touchdown, while Radcliff rushed for 155 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 21 carries.
This year Hikutini and Radcliff are key cogs in Louisville’s offensive attack, which out of 128 FBS programs ranks first in scoring at 52.6 points per game.
“I think they have great running backs who run hard,” Wilkins said. “They are athletic on the outside with their receivers, you know, James Quick and the other receivers that they have. They have a team. It’s not just him doing it by himself, because I don’t think he could.”
“He” in this case refers to sophomore quarterback Lamar Jackson, the electric athlete who Michael Vick praised as “five times better than I was at V-Tech.” Jackson may not be without help this season, but because of his ability alone, forget the fact Virginia has hung with Louisville the past two seasons.
History has no measure for Jackson. The Pompano Beach, Fla. native has rushed for 908 yards and 16 touchdowns, seventh best among college running backs. With a strong, accurate arm to go along with sprinter speed and pocket awareness, Jackson has also tossed 18 touchdowns to only four interceptions.
“Looking at ESPN, I see his name all over the place,” sophomore cornerback Juan Thornhill said. “He’s a very dynamic quarterback, and you can see it. The stats, they show it all.”
The Cavaliers have prepared for Jackson all week, using freshman dual-threat quarterback De’Vante Cross to simulate the likely Heisman Trophy winner. Unless Virginia E-schoolers have outfitted Cross with booster cleats and a cannon for a right arm, the Cavaliers won’t know what hits them Saturday.
Jackson touched the football once in the 2015 win over Virginia, and he took that handoff 45 yards. The thought of him touching the pigskin every play Saturday is terrifying.