Coming off an impressive Halloween night performance against North Carolina, Virginia football returns to the field hoping to continue its momentum against a struggling Louisville team. The Cardinals (2-5, 1-5 ACC) have won four of the last five matchups against the Cavaliers (2-4, 2-4 ACC). Virginia will look to take advantage of a reeling Louisville team that peaked at No. 18 in the AP Poll earlier this year but has since fallen.
A key storyline will be how a struggling Cavalier defense matches up against a Louisville offense that had high expectations coming into the year. Virginia has held its opponent to under 38 points just once this season while Louisville has scored at least 34 points in four of its games. Despite being viewed as the strength of the team in the preseason, the defense has looked lost and unorganized at times.
After the game was originally slated to take place Nov. 7, COVID-19 complications within the Louisville program prompted ACC and team officials to reschedule the game for Saturday.
Players to watch
Virginia sophomore linebacker Nick Jackson
After flashing signs of potential in last year’s Orange Bowl loss to Florida, Jackson has lived up to his billing as a full-time starter this season. The sophomore linebacker from Atlanta, Ga. has increased his level of play as of late, racking up 27 total tackles in his last two games against Miami and North Carolina, two of the tougher offenses the Cavaliers have faced. Although the Cardinals have had struggles, its offense has proved to be effective at times, averaging 29.4 points per game. As one of the quarterbacking middle linebackers alongside senior Zane Zandier, Jackson will be tasked with holding an electric Louisville offense in check. His versatile play style allows him to stuff the run as well as drop back into coverage, which will be crucial against an offense with a mobile quarterback in junior Malik Cunningham and a quick throwing scheme.
Louisville sophomore running back Javian Hawkins
Hawkins has been one of the few bright spots on an otherwise disappointing Louisville team. Through seven games, the sophomore has racked up 822 yards on 6.2 yards per carry to go along with 7 touchdowns. His impact as a checkdown option for Cunningham should not be overlooked either, as he has 127 yards to go with 1 touchdown in the air. A week ago against the Tar Heels, the Cavalier defense knew it had to neutralize a running back tandem that combined for 1,146 yards and 13 touchdowns coming into the game. Two weeks later, the Cavaliers will have to replicate that same mentality in order to be victorious. Over the course of the season, the Cavaliers have proven to be only as successful as its run defense is. In its two sole victories against Duke and North Carolina, Virginia allowed 56 and 93 yards rushing, respectively. However, in two losses against NC State and Wake Forest, the Cavaliers allowed 179 and 174 yards rushing, respectively. In a year where the secondary has struggled, the run defense has needed to step up on several occasions. Against a back like Hawkins, there will be no room for error.
Keys to the game
Get ahead early
Prior to the Miami game, Virginia had been outscored 48-3 in the first quarter, a large reason for its opening 1-3 record. However, in its past two performances, the Cavaliers have outscored Miami and North Carolina a combined 20-17. Virginia was competitive until the end in those games against ranked opponents. The strength of the Cavalier offense lies within the run game. If offensive coordinator Robert Anae can utilize his dual-quarterback system of junior Keytaon Thompson and sophomore Brennan Armstrong effectively, the Cavaliers can keep defenses guessing, as they did against the Tar Heels. However, falling behind early eliminates the effectiveness of the run game and places the responsibility solely on Armstrong’s arm. While the Shelby, Ohio native has seen massive improvements to his throwing game over the course of the season, his maximum effectiveness comes when he can use his dual-threat mobility as well. If the Cavaliers can maintain pace early on, or even establish a healthy lead, the run game becomes a tool to wear down a Cardinals’ defense that has struggled all season long.
Bring the pressure
Despite allowing 536 total yards against the Tar Heels, the Virginia defense held strong on several possessions to force a punt or field goal. The five Virginia sacks, four by senior linebacker Charles Snowden, proved to be huge drive killers against North Carolina. The Cavaliers should focus on making Cunningham uncomfortable in the pocket. By scheming up a variety of blitzes, the Louisville offense will be forced to keep guessing, preventing it from truly establishing its offense and run game. The secondary has struggled for most parts of the season, but if the front seven can make plays on the quarterback, the secondary will not have to maintain its coverage assignments as long. Notably, keep an eye on Snowden once again — the best pass rusher on the Virginia defense, his impact is not to be overlooked. If he replicates his success from two weeks ago, Louisville will be in for a long afternoon.
Kick-off at Scott Stadium is set for 3:30 p.m. Saturday. The game will be televised on the ACC Network.