I’m going to give you 4 ‘things’ to watch during the game – player match-ups, strengths/weaknesses, etc. – so you’ll have a sense of what to watch for as the game plays out. I’m going to give you 4 keys to the game, so to speak, based on my research of this opponent, and 2 predictions based on those things we’ll be watching to play a large role in the eventual outcome of the game. Ergo, you have “what 2 watch 4”.
The Cards host Virginia in the penultimate home game of the 2017 season, fresh off of a bye week, and shooting for bowl eligibility. It sounds like Bobby Petrino’s team got a much needed off week and returns well-rested, with fewer names on the injury report this week as well. Virginia already has its 6th win, with a rather impressive 42-23 road victory at now 7-2 Boise State on their resume, so we’re looking at yet another challenging game. But there are no easy games left on the schedule, so it’s time for the Cards to decide if they’re going on a run to close the season.
Continue with the offensive game-plan – let Lamar work
Louisville is ranked 3rd nationally in total offense – 21st in scoring offense, 26th in rushing offense and 8th in passing offense. Lamar Jackson is 9th in passing yards per game and 18th in rushing yards per game. Louisville also has 2 top 100 receivers in Dez Fitzpatrick and Seth Dawkins. The offense hasn’t been a problem – maintain the status quo here. Virginia is 59th in scoring defense and 60th in rushing defense. This is by no means a walk in the park, they’re a decent defense, but this match-up definitely favors Louisville. Keep doing you, Louisville.
Cover Olamide Zaccheaus
I’m just going to hope that we learned from our outing against Greg Dortsch, the guy we were supposed to keep an eye on two weeks ago but actually torched Louisville for 4 TDs. In reality, Zaccheaus is pretty close in play style to NC State’s Jaylen Samuels, but don’t look at his stats against Louisville for comfort. The Cards do get a do-over this week and can show progress against this kind of hybrid offensive weapon that is moved around the field to create mis-matches and get open looks. The Cavaliers #4 has 834 all-purpose yards and 5 total touchdowns between 21 carries and 66 catches. He’ll get targets in this one, and Louisville will need to stay conscious of his whereabouts.
Prove you can stop the run again, shut down Jordan Ellis
The Cards rank 49th in rushing defense, and that may be a little inflated based on opposition on a few occasions. Big strong running backs who run between the tackles have caused problems for Louisville this season, and while there isn’t a lot of dynamism to his game, Jordan Ellis does cut the mustard as the style of back Louisville has struggled with. Ellis slots in as the country’s 59th best ball-carrier with 708 yards and 5 scores on the season. 70% of Virginia’s ground attack goes through Ellis, and Louisville will need to keep him under his 4.16 per carry average.
Don’t over-pursue those 2 guys and leave openings for their other receivers. No big plays
So, yeah, basically cover those two… and everyone else. Look, I get it, this seems like lazy writing. What I’m actually trying to point out here is that in addition to those two, Virginia has a senior QB, Kurt Benkert, whose 20 TDs to just 6 INTs are actually rather impressive numbers. While volume usage does lean towards Zaccheaus and Ellis, scoring plays tend to be spread a little more across the team. Doni Dowling, a 6’1″ senior, has 5 TDs on the year, Andre Levrone, a 6’3″ senior, has 6 TDs, and 5 other Cavalier receivers have seen the end zone. But with all of that spreading the field, Virginia’s offense ranks just 96th in long plays from scrimmage – this means plays that go for 10+ yards. They’ve actually only had about half the number of big plays that Louisville has (196 to 113). 84 of those have come in the passing game, which is actually top 50 numbers. With a more modest ~2,200 passing yards, to go along with those big TD numbers, you can paint a picture of a team that chips away in bits with intermediate passing and short-yardage runs, relying on occasional big plays to light up the scoreboard. Louisville needs to account for both to stop the Cavaliers’ offense. See? That actually had some thought to it.
Prediction 1: Louisville beats their averages of 549 yards and 36 points
Lamar Jackson had almost 500 on his own last time out. Lamar has been given a further increased role in the ground game topping 20 carries and 150 yards in each of his last 3 games, after only a single game of over 20 carries and no 150+ yard days. The defending Heisman winner should definitely be able to get his, and it sounds like he should have a pretty healthy assortment of weapons to utilize alongside him.
Prediction 2: Virginia gets their big plays, 1 or 2 TDs from outside of the red zone.
The Louisville defense has a lot to prove. Virginia has a lot of weapons to challenge them. It’s hard to see a complete game of Louisville keeping Virginia contained. With Benkert spreading the ball around, I’d expect at least a couple of Cavalier receivers finding space, and Ellis is capable of breaking tackles for long runs. I don’t think we can stop that from happening, but the hope is to minimize them and give the offense enough room to stay out in front.
It may seem like I’m pretty much just saying “play defense”, but the honest truth is that this is the case. Again, Louisville’s offense has hit its bumps and hasn’t been video game prolific, but they’ve produced consistent performances, averaging 549.3 yards and 36.7 points per game. I’m not “calling out” the defense, the numbers do the talking. Removing the Kent State and Murray State games, to get an idea of Louisville’s performance against same-level competition, the Cards are averaging allowing 37.7 points per game. This game, as with all of the games, will come down to whether or not the defense can show enough to allow an underappreciated but high level offense to shine. Shut me up, defense.
Score Prediction: Louisville 38 – Virginia 35
Andy Knabel joined on as a contributing writer for The Cardinal Connect in August of 2013. You can follow Andy on Twitter @knabelism.