Virginia is headed into ACC play.
The Cavaliers (2-1) are set to face Louisville at Scott Stadium Saturday in a matchup of two teams that have played well in spurts but have yet to find consistency.
Virginia comes into the game with more momentum than Louisville (2-1), however. The Cavaliers posting 38 first-half points on their way to a 45-31 victory.
On offense, junior transfer quarterback Bryce Perkins, senior running back Jordan Ellis and senior wide receiver Olamide Zaccheaus led the charge, each posting career-highs in yards. Zaccheaus’ 247 yards was also a Virginia single-game record.
Zaccheaus, who already has 20 receptions for 363 yards and four touchdowns through three games this season, needs just 33 more receptions to break the all-time record of 210. The senior wideout has already established strong chemistry with Perkins, and should be a difference-maker Saturday.
The Cavaliers’ offensive attack mirrored that — explosive, balanced and having breakout capacity.
“We are becoming clearer of where the ball needs to go and to whom, how frequently, the balance necessary, where potential weak spots are,” Virginia Coach Bronco Mendenhall said in a press conference Monday. “We think we can project that now into ACC play at least in formulating game plans.”
On the defensive end, Virginia’s defensive line stepped up a week after allowing over 200 yards to Indiana true freshman running back Stevie Scott. Other than giving up a 70-yard gain to Ohio quarterback Nathan Rourke, the Cavaliers’ defensive line stood strong. Particularly impressive was junior defensive tackle Eli Hanback, who had two fumble recoveries.
Although the Cavalier secondary was inconsistent, junior cornerback Bryce Hall’s play stood out. Hall led Virginia with four pass breakups, including one on fourth down that put an end to a 21-3 Ohio run that put the Bobcats back in the game.
Virginia’s next opponent did not fare as well with its game last weekend.
It took a 14-point fourth quarter effort for the Cardinals to beat in-state foe Western Kentucky, whom Louisville expected to dominate. The final score was 20-17.
Louisville is certainly a different team from last year’s, which was led by now-NFL player Lamar Jackson. Last year, Jackson torched the Cavaliers’ defense with four touchdowns, .
Jackson is gone, but that doesn’t mean Louisville isn’t a solid team.
“They have very good receivers, they have good running backs, they have good skill and a good scheme,” Mendenhall said.
After some doubt through the first three games, Louisville Coach Bobby Petrino named redshirt freshman Malik Cunningham starting quarterback after his strong performance in place of sophomore Jawon Pass against Western Kentucky Saturday.
Cunningham came into the game in the second quarter and started to turn things around for the Cardinals after they fell behind 14-0. His rushing ability immediately drew comparisons to Jackson, doing most of his work on the ground. Cunningham picked up 129 rushing yards.
“Any time you compare someone to Lamar Jackson — I don't really know how you do that,” Mendenhall said.
“[Cunningham is] a dynamic athlete for sure,” Mendenhall added. [He] doesn't yet possess the ability to throw the ball or the complete set of skills that Lamar has, but if you're talking just about athleticism, that's the closest where he might compare.”
Virginia has struggled against dual-threat quarterbacks, and the defensive line and linebacking core will need to keep an eye on Cunningham’s rushing threat Saturday afternoon.
The Cavaliers and Cardinals are both looking to pick up a key conference victory Saturday — one that will be critical in determining bowl eligibility down the road.
Both coaches acknowledged the strength of their opponents this week and the magnitude of the contest.
“We’re familiar with them — we’re going to have to execute, play well,” Petrino said in a press conference Monday afternoon.
Virginia has the key advantage of being at home, a week after their home game against Ohio was in Nashville due to Hurricane Florence.
“Every home game, whether it's ACC or not, is critical,” Mendenhall said. “Every time you can get an advantage in this league, at any level, no matter how miniscule or how significant, you have to leverage it because they don't come very often … We're looking forward to being home and playing.”
Two dual-threat quarterbacks meet Saturday in Charlottesville, with the first ACC victory at stake.
Kickoff is set for 12:30 p.m. at Scott Stadium.