After three games in just 12 days and an extremely exciting but emotionally draining last-second win against Miami, Virginia certainly could use the extended break to prepare for its next challenge — a game against Louisville. The Cavaliers (3-2, 1-2 ACC) are back on the right side of .500 after a 30-28 win against the Hurricanes, while the Cardinals (3-2, 1-1 ACC) found themselves on the wrong side of a very similar ending against Wake Forest last weekend, giving up a field goal with just 22 seconds left to lose 37-34. Now, Virginia and Louisville face off in a game that could be crucial to how both teams finish their seasons. Look for a high-scoring matchup that will depend on which defense is able to get a stop when it matters most.
Players to watch
Louisville junior quarterback Malik Cunningham
Cunningham is the epitome of a dual-threat quarterback, with more rushing touchdowns than passing through the first five games of the season. Similar to Virginia junior quarterback Brennan Armstrong, Cunningham struggled with turnovers in the past, but he has improved dramatically this season, with just two interceptions to his name. What is particularly impressive about his turnaround is that the Cardinals lost their two most dynamic wide receivers last year, yet Cunningham simply got better and better. The junior from Alabama is the leader of a potent Louisville offense, having scored no less than 23 points in a game all season. While Virginia has looked better on defense as of late, the Cavaliers are no doubt still a work in progress on that end of the ball. If Cunningham can have yet another efficient game both running and passing, it could spell trouble for Virginia.
Virginia senior running back Wayne Taulapapa
After missing the Wake Forest game with a concussion, the senior from Hawaii bounced back in Coral Gables with his best game of the season, rushing 11 times for 62 yards and a touchdown. What made Virginia fans especially happy was Tauapapa’s newfound explosiveness. While typically known as the goal-line running back who reliably can get two yards when needed, Taulapapa showed off other skills as well, breaking off a 27-yard run in the second quarter. With offensive coordinator Robert Anae seemingly switching plans and using traditional running plays much more often, Taulapapa could be in for another big game against Louisville. When adding the fact that the Cardinals have the second worst rushing defense in the ACC, if the trend of running the ball on offense continues, look for Taulapapa to be one of the biggest factors in determining how Virginia’s night goes offensively.
Keys to the game
Get Armstrong back in a rhythm
The Cavaliers’ quarterback had his worst game of the season statistically against Miami, finishing with just 268 yards passing and only one touchdown through the air. As an offense that has relied heavily on the aerial attack, it would be ideal to see a breakout game for Virginia’s offense against the Cardinals. While it was said before that Louisville struggled to defend the run, the Cardinals are actually worse against quarterbacks — giving up over 260 yards a game, good for the most in the conference. If there ever were a team for a quarterback to get abc on track, Louisville would be the one to do it against. If Armstrong can return to his form of the first three games — which is admittedly a tall ask — Virginia should be in a good position to win on Saturday.
Do not fade on defense
For about two and a half quarters on Saturday, the Cavalier defense was playing its best football all season. Although it was facing a backup quarterback, Virginia still stood extremely strong, forcing more punts in the first half alone than in the Wake Forest and North Carolina games combined. Unfortunately, a short field given to Miami by an Armstrong interception seemed to awaken the Hurricane offense, who then proceeded to score touchdowns on three of their next four possessions. Against at least an equally potent offense in Louisville, it would be of the utmost importance for Virginia to try and keep up what their performance was in the first half against Miami. The game in Coral Gables was a step in the right direction, but in order to have a stress-free Saturday against the Cardinals, Virginia needs to play solid defense the entire game.
Virginia and Louisville are set to kick off in Louisville, Ky. at 3 p.m. Saturday. The game will be televised on the ACC Network.