The road trip for the home game in Tennessee was successful. And now the Hoos return to Scott Stadium for everyone's favorite manufactured rivalry. The deep, persistent hatred between Virginia and cross division rival Louisville is well known in college football circles. There was that time when...hmm. Oh, but everyone remembers...no, wait. And who can forget...SMH.
It's semi well known that I'd happily ship the Cards off to the AAC or reboot the old Metro Conference in order to extricate them from the ACC. But since no one important listens to me on these things, we'll move on to the game.
A win here sets the Hoos up nicely for getting to the six wins necessary to clinch bowl eligibility. Both teams enter the contest 2-1 with this game serving as the ACC opener. Louisville caught a beating from Alabama in their season opener. They've followed with two wins in a row over Indiana State and Western Kentucky. The 31 to 7 win over Larry Bird's alma mater was a bit deceiving as the game was tied at 7 at halftime. Louisville scored 17 points in the 4th quarter to provide the final margin of victory. Against WKU, the Cards managed to eek out 20 to 17 win after outscoring the Hilltoppers 14 to 3 in the 4th.
It's no wonder that the Hoos are a slight favorite at home Saturday. But to be honest, I don't have a great feel on this Louisville team. How do the Hoos get it done?
Make QB Malik Cunningham Beat You With His Arm
The redshirt freshman was a mid-high 3 star composite recruit from 247 Sports. This week, he'll make his first career collegiate start taking over for the ineffective Jawon Pass. It's always difficult to replace a legend like Lamar Jackson and the Louisville QBs are still trying to find their way.
Cunningham's reputation is that he is a better runner than passer at this point in his career. The sample size is small, but Cunningham is 16-25 on the season for 163 yards with 1 TD and no interceptions in two appearances (Indiana State, Western Kentucky) this season. On the ground, he's run for 183 yards on 33 attempts and 1 TD. His long rush on the season is 19 yards.
Malik Cunningham already shooting up the national stat list... In the Top 100 for rushing yards at #97. Played 2 games with 33 attempts for 183 yards and 1 touchdown. One of only 8 guys who have played just two games in the Top 100.pic.twitter.com/TQneEazbAp— The Cardinal's Beak 🐤 (@RU4UofL) September 20, 2018
Outside of one long run by Ohio QB Nathan Rourke, the Hoos have done a good job this year defending against QB runs and plays outside the pocket. Cunningham is smaller and quicker than both Rourke and Indiana's Peyton Ramsey, so it's likely he'll be a bit harder to defend when on the move.
The Hoos should take full advantage of this being his first career start, on the road no less, against one of the ACC's premier secondaries. Switch up coverages and blitz looks in an attempt to confuse his pre-snap reads while the diehard Wahoos in attendance give him an earful, and Cunningham should find the passing problematic despite Louisville's talent at wide receiver.
If Cunningham struggles to pass, then the Cards' offense becomes one dimensional quickly and that will help UVA's front seven tremendously.
Handle Louisville's Blitzing
Louisville arrives with a young, banged-up defense. In order to mitigate their injury and experience issues, they're relying on aggressive blitzing to keep offenses in check. From my point of view, the Hoos' offensive line has had some struggles this season handling blitzes. Louisville's approach, then, could cause a lot of problems for the Hoos offense if the OL and secondary pass blockers aren't having a good game.
But, there will be plenty of big plays to be had if the Cards' blitz packages are neutralized. Louisville's defensive ranks on the season to date.
Big plays should be there on the ground and in the air if the blocking holds. And then it's time to make the Cards pay.
Make The Move At Kicker
It's time to end the AJ Mejia era at kicker. A 9 for 15 career mark on field goals over two seasons, including 1 for 3 this season, isn't good enough. Mejia's career long is only 38 yards and his one make this season was from 33 yards. I have no doubt that Mejia is a great teammate and fine representative of UVA but wins and losses matter at this level.
The inability to make field goals puts enormous strain on the offense and the play calling. The results justify a change and improvement in this area will lower the pressure on the offense while easing the need for riskier than necessary play calling inside opponents' 40 yard lines.
The obvious replacement is true freshman Hunter Pearson. He entered fall camp with a leg injury that put him behind in the competition for the job. Because of Pearson's injury, it was no surprise that Mejia won the job. But Pearson has a number and should be healthy enough to kick now. Even if Mejia is more consistent than Pearson in practice, it's still time to see what Pearson can do where it really counts.
Some thrilling clips of what Pearson may bring to the table...
And if Pearson isn't healthy enough to kick in game conditions yet? Then roll out kickoff specialist Brian Delaney, holder/punter Nash Griffin, punter Lester Coleman, or one of the two walkon freshman kickers.
The anxiety points for this game are an inability to handle constant blitzing by Louisville, blown kicks, and a coming out party for a freshman QB making his first career start. Given that it's the ACC opener for both teams, this feels like a game that we spend learning about the teams rather than reinforcing already held opinions formed during nonconference play.
I expect the Hoos to try to control the game with their rushing attack. Louisville will land enough punches with their blitzes to keep the UVA offense honest, but they'll surrender some big plays on the outside too. Ultimately, I think that becomes the difference.
UVA wins 34 to 28.