Jackson, Louisville await Virginia Saturday
Cavaliers look to turn around slow start to season
After losing to North Carolina last weekend, the Cavaliers once again face a conference foe in hopes of gaining ground in the ACC.
“There are always growing pains along the way and chances to learn,” coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “I think that's one of the things that not only our quarterback, but our team is working to overcome.”
Unfortunately for the Cavaliers (2-5, 1-2 ACC), the growing pains have been plaguing them all year. After opening the season with three straight losses, Virginia bounced back with strong wins against Central Michigan (5-3, 2-2 MAC) and Duke (3-4, 0-3 ACC). Despite the apparent turnaround, the Cavaliers have dropped both of their last two games, 45-31 and 35-14, against Pittsburgh (5-2, 2-1 ACC) and UNC (6-2, 4-1 ACC), respectively.
“The UNC defensive line were all pretty strong guys,” senior offensive tackle Eric Smith said. “As a unit, they were honestly the biggest group we’ve gone against. They were a good challenge for us.”
UNC’s defensive line challenged the Cavaliers, and then some. In Saturday’s contest, Virginia’s offense was limited to 253 total yards, an abysmal 15.8 percent third down completion rate and 2.8 yards per rush. On the other side of the ball, the Cavalier defense allowed 488 yards of total offense, three touchdown passes and an average of 10 yards per pass.
In order to have any chance this weekend, the Cavaliers will have to vastly turn around their overall season performance.
Louisville enters Saturday’s game as the fifth-ranked team in the nation, and rightfully so. Over seven games, the Cardinals (6-1, 4-1 ACC) have generated an astounding 4,318 yards of total offense and are averaging 52.6 points per game — the best in the nation. For comparison, Virginia is averaging 27.3 points per game — about half of Louisville’s average.
In addition to boasting arguably the nation’s best offense, the Cardinals also have the front-runner for the Heisman Trophy, the annual honor awarded to college football’s best player. Under center, sophomore quarterback Lamar Jackson has been destroying teams’ defenses all year; a little over halfway through the season he has already accounted for 34 touchdowns. Virginia junior quarterback Kurt Benkert, for comparison, has accounted for just 14.
“I have been really impressed with Jackson so far,” Mendenhall said. “This quarterback is very dynamic. He throws the ball well, runs the ball well and is super explosive at any given time. [Louisville] has quarterback-designed running plays with blockers to block for him. They certainly have the scramble threat. It would be different if that was all there was, but the supporting cast is explosive and dynamic, as well. You really have to kind of pick and choose your poison as to where and when you choose what to stop.”
That fact is not good news for the Cavaliers. In addition to stopping Jackson, who is arguably the most dynamic player in college football today, they will also have to worry about senior running back Brandon Radcliff, who is averaging 7.8 yards on 71 carries, and senior receiver James Quick, who is averaging 16.3 yards on 32 receptions. Quick has also scored four touchdowns for the Cardinals, including a catch of 72 yards.
In addition to its efficient offense, Louisville also boasts an exceptionally strong defense. The Cardinals enter the weekend as the country’s 10th-ranked team in total defense, having limited teams to an average of only 301.3 yards per game.
“Their defensive coordinator has a lot of experience and a lot of success,” Mendenhall said. “They also have good players. So when you have a combination of good coaches and good talent, that ends up having a lot of success and over the years, and Louisville has done that. They have added good football coaches and they have recruited very good talent to fit their schemes and vice versa.”
Defeating Louisville won’t quite be impossible for the Cavaliers. Two seasons ago in Charlottesville Virginia managed to accomplish the feat, defeating a then-No. 21 Cardinal team, 23-21. But in 2014 Louisville didn’t have Lamar Jackson and the nation’s best offense. If Virginia wants any chance at winning Saturday’s game, it will have to summon all of its strength of the season.
Kickoff for the game is scheduled for 12 p.m. Saturday at Scott Stadium.