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Virginia football hits the road on short rest for a Thursday night fight at No. 11 Louisville

On a weeknight clash versus a squad aiming to reach the ACC championship, a rough evening could be in store

<p>Colandrea will need to be at his best in order for the Cavaliers to pull of a second upset road victory.</p>

Colandrea will need to be at his best in order for the Cavaliers to pull of a second upset road victory.

For arguably the first time since the season-opening loss against Tennessee, Virginia football was outclassed against Georgia Tech. The Cavaliers (2-7, 1-4 ACC) fell victim to a laundry list of injuries against the Yellow Jackets (5-4, 4-2 ACC), namely senior starting quarterback Tony Muskett going down and forcing freshman Anthony Colandrea to enter the game and therefore burn his redshirt, which also affected Virginia’s strategy given the stylistic differences between the two players. Rebounding against No. 11 Louisville will be extremely difficult, but Coach Tony Elliott and his squad have proved they are capable of taking down this level of opponent already this season, hoping to enact a similar fate on the Cardinals (8-1, 5-1 ACC) as then-No. 10 North Carolina.

Key matchups

Elliott versus Louisville Coach Jeff Brohm

In the historic upset against the Tar Heels, Elliott and offensive coordinator Des Kitchings took complete control of what became a chess match between intelligent coaches on each sideline. Like Coach Mack Brown of North Carolina, Brohm is a smart coach in his own right and helms a well-disciplined Cardinal team. He spent years leading Purdue against Big Ten competition, and his experience is displayed through trick plays and huge gains on offense. 

Brohm’s status as one of the best coaches in the ACC is headlined by inheriting an offense that averaged a pedestrian 26.9 points per game in 2022 and turning it into a 32.9 mark that is fourth-best in the conference. His Cardinals will seldom make mistakes, which could be problematic for a Cavalier squad that occasionally spirals with a slew of costly penalties — or lack thereof, as seen in a heinous 29-26 loss at Miami. In order to ensure a competitive matchup, the coaching staff needs to come out with a game plan that fits the opponent, something the Cavaliers struggled to do in the last game according to Elliott.

Virginia defensive line versus Louisville running back Jawhar Jordan

Jordan’s 881 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground are both second-best in the ACC. He also averages a ridiculous 7.1 yards per carry as the engine of an explosive Cardinal offense and is on the Doak Walker Award Watch List for the best running back in college football. The Cavaliers were horrendously porous against the Yellow Jacket run game Saturday, surrendering a grand total of 305 rushing yards. The Virginia defense must find a way to do better or else a similarly lopsided final score will ensue. 

Against the Tar Heels, the Cavaliers were able to allow just 140 rushing yards against one of the best rushing attacks in all of college football. Virginia’s most important prerequisite for creating close games in 2023 has been to contain running plays, as getting destroyed through simple medium-sized runs keeps possession and game clock away from the electric Cavalier offense. 

Keys to victory

Force Louisville senior quarterback Jack Plummer to be the hero

Plummer is regarded as one of the better quarterbacks in the ACC, but his statistics are nowhere near intimidating. He has only thrown multiple touchdowns in two games this season. Over a third of Plummer’s touchdowns came in just a single game, and his eight interceptions are noteworthy for the wrong reasons. Plummer has succeeded in Brohm’s pro-style offense that relies on quickly giving the ball to speedy playmakers, but the system is easily beaten when the Cardinal offensive line struggles to pave running lanes or the wide receivers are well covered. 

Defensive coordinator John Rudzinski must find a way to lock down the Louisville receivers while also winning in the trenches against an offensive line composed of all upperclassmen. If Plummer is forced to make difficult throws or keep plays alive by moving out of the pocket, Virginia could very well walk away with another massive road upset. 

If Muskett is out, let Colandrea cook

Muskett is considered day-to-day with a high ankle sprain, and will likely be a game-time decision. Because Colandrea is no longer able to use his redshirt, it would be wise to start Colandrea due to the murkiness of Muskett’s ankle sprain and lingering left shoulder injury. The two are stylistically different quarterbacks, and Colandrea’s upside is a major asset. 

Colandrea was breaking school freshman passing records earlier this season and evidently thrives when given the keys to the offense. He has served up multiple passing touchdowns of more than 60 yards and will learn best when the training wheels of a run-focused offense are removed. Interceptions aside, his dynamic penchant for the game-changing play will be necessary against the Cardinals.

Contain Louisville junior wide receiver Jamari Thrash

Aside from the consensus leader in graduate student wide receiver Malik Washington, Thrash has been one of the best wideouts in the ACC. He produced 159 yards and a touchdown on just four receptions against Indiana earlier this season. Despite early statistical inconsistencies, Thrash is averaging eight receptions and 89 yards per game in his previous three contests. He is heating up for a postseason push and is well worth extra attention defensively.

Thrash’s 15.5 yards per reception in the 2023 campaign is certainly nothing to balk at, and he is clearly Plummer’s favorite target. If Thrash can be limited in one-on-one coverage, Louisville will likely turn to the run game and Rudzinski will be able to divert his personnel towards hindering Jordan.

Back in primetime for the first time since their historic upset at North Carolina, the Cavaliers will kick off Thursday in Louisville, Ky. at 7:30 p.m. on ESPN. 

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