If the Cavaliers want to be bowl-eligible for the first time since 2011, they must initially go through a tough Louisville squad on the road this Saturday. Virginia (3-6, 2-3 ACC) has to win its final three games for any hope of playing postseason football this winter.
The Cavaliers won’t have an easy job on their hands as they face a Louisville rushing defense ranked No. 2 in the ACC and No. 11 in the country.
The Cardinal rushing defense is allowing opposing ball-carriers just 110.6 yards per game. More impressive is that Louisville (5-4, 4-2 ACC) has allowed a mere 42.7 rushing yards per game in three straight ACC victories. Much of this success has to do with junior linebacker Keith Kelsey, who has recorded 72 total tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss in just nine games played. Kelsey also has a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in 2015.
If the stout rushing defense wasn’t enough, the Cardinals also have a passing defense that has picked off opposing quarterbacks an FBS-leading 41 times in the last two years.
Louisville’s ball-hawking defense is headed by sophomore cornerback Trumaine Washington. He leads the team with four interceptions on the year and came up with a pick-six in last week’s win over Syracuse.
Virginia’s defense has been up and down so far this year. The Cavaliers have held some good running backs at bay but have also given up some long-ball plays to opposing wide receivers. The big plays cornerbacks have surrendered must be minimized if the Cavaliers want to beat a Louisville team with some speedy, talented wideouts.
However, coach Mike London said to hold back from quickly pointing the finger at the secondary for the recent big plays let up on defense.
“The best pass defense is a pass rush — being able to come off the edge, having guys get in the quarterback’s face,” London said. “We have to get to the quarterback.”
Two guys who need to continue to bring pressure are senior defensive ends Trent Corney and Mike Moore. Corney had a career-high seven tackles against Miami last week while Moore leads the team in sacks and tackles for loss on the year.
London said Corney has nicely developed this year but still has room to grow.
“The last couple of games he’s really shown up. He’s chased guys down from behind and been involved in some tackles,” London said. “We’re going to need him to continue to get better as a pass rusher and a football player.”
Moore has lined up at times as a linebacker and other times as a defensive lineman. His versatility is crucial to the Cavalier defense and ultimately to Virginia winning games moving forward.
“Mike is a guy who plays multiple roles for us. He puts his hand down on the ground and rushes, but is also an integral part of the defense as a Sam linebacker,” London said. “That means he stands up and can rush or cover from that position.”
One of the biggest surprises — and bright spots — for Virginia has been the emergence of freshman running back/wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus. Due to an overloaded backfield, Virginia’s coaching staff has deployed him as a hybrid receiver — a mix between a slot receiver and a tailback.
“We found a place for Olamide in that hybrid running back/wide receiver position,” London said. “He’s broken a couple already and we’ll try to get it to him more because he is a productive player.”
Zaccheaus has thrived in his new position and looks to have a very bright future at Virginia. He has arguably been the Cavaliers’ best freshman thus far this year.
“We’re doing a lot of jet sweeps with Olamide and are getting him involved in the vertical passing game,” London said. “He’s fast and has great vertical speed. He has an appetite for the game.”
Another positive for Virginia this year has been the excellent performance of senior kicker Ian Frye. He’s 14-17 on the year and made all four of his tries last week at Miami. Although London was quick to praise Frye, Frye’s success actually points to a larger issue: a lack of touchdowns.
“He has been a very positive and bright spot for us,” London said. “But what we want ultimately are touchdowns. That’s the biggest thing right now in close games is the ability to score those touchdowns [and that] is one of the things we have to do a better job of.”
Constantly settling for field goals can be detrimental to any football team. The Cavaliers have done this too often this year. On 25 red-zone trips, Virginia has scored only 12 touchdowns. They can’t afford to do this Saturday if they want to come out on top.
Before every game, London has emphasized to his players that the next game is always the most important game. This time around London took as literal an approach as possible with his “next game up” mentality.
“The ‘next game up’ mentality is that this next game is an away game against a good Louisville team,” he said.
The Cavaliers kick off versus the Cardinals at 12:30 p.m. Saturday. The game can be seen on the ACC Network.x