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Big Game Preview: Louisville limps into game at UVA still trying to find identity

uva footballLouisville heads to Charlottesville for its ACC opener with UVA on Saturday still trying to find its way in the post-Lamar Jackson era at quarterback.

Coach Bobby Petrino announced this week that redshirt freshman Malik Cunningham will get his first collegiate start at Virginia (2-1), after Cunningham relieved redshirt sophomore Jawon Pass, anointed the starter in camp, and led the Cardinals to wins over Indiana State and Western Kentucky.

Cunningham jumpstarted a dormant Louisville offense in the 20-17 come-from-behind win over WKU, running for 129 yards, but he only completed 10 of his 19 pass attempts for 88 yards, and on the season, Cards’ QBs have thrown for just 504 yards through three games, a far cry from what Jackson, the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner, was able to put up.

The Skinny: UVA vs. Louisville

Louisville at UVA, 12:30 p.m., RSN, 108, 207, 972
Series: Louisville leads series, 4-2; Last meeting: UL, 38-21 (2017)
RSN: Wes Durham, James Bates, Rebecca Kaple
Line: Virginia -4.5

Jackson threw for more than 3,500 yards and ran for more than 1,500 in each of the past two years, and accounted for 96 total touchdowns over that span.

The 2018 Cardinals, not so much. Louisville is averaging 21.7 points and 307.7 yards total offense, a little more than half the 38.1 points and 544.9 yards per game it averaged in 2017.

The weapons that Jackson used are largely still around. Wideout Jaylen Smith, who had 980 yards on 60 receptions a year ago, is tied for the team lead with just six through three games in 2018.

The #2 and #3 receivers from 2017, Dez Fitzpatrick (45 catches, 699 yards in 2017; 5 catches, 61 yards in 2018) and Seth Dawkins (42 catches, 642 yards in 2017; 6 catches, 96 yards in 2018) are still in the mix, for example.

It’s just not clicking, not yet, post-Jackson, though Petrino has reason for hope with Cunningham, who has led Louisville to scores on eight of the 12 drives that he has led coming off the bench the past two games.

Petrino teams have never been anything special on defense, and that continues to be the case in 2018. Louisville, ranking 11th in the ACC in total defense (386 yards per game), 12th in rushing defense (188 yards per game) and 12th in pass-defense efficiency (135.3).

The D line isn’t getting pressure on opposing QBs (just five sacks through three games) or doing much against the run (WKU, which lost at home to Maine of the FCS two weeks ago, put up 168 yards on the ground en route to 428 yards of total offense at Louisville).

Breakdown: UVA vs. Louisville

The ‘Hoos will establish the power ground game early with bruising tailback Jordan Ellis (126.7 rushing yards per game in 2018, 2nd in the ACC).

First-year starting QB Bryce Perkins (223.3 yards per game passing, 4th in the ACC, 79.7 yards per game rushing, 10th in the ACC) has run for 100+ yards twice and then last week threw for 379 yards and three TDs in UVA’s 45-31 win over Ohio U.

Olamide Zaccheaus has two 100+-yard games, including a career-best 247 yards on nine catches (on 10 targets) with two long touchdowns (75 and 86 yards) in the win over Ohio U.

Establish the power run, basically, then showcase the speed on the perimeter, with Perkins in the read- and triple-option, and Zaccheaus and fellow wideouts Hasise Dubois (13 catches, 154 yards, 2 TDs) and Joe Reed (6 catches, 62 yards) opening things up downfield in the passing game.

Defensively, Virginia will face a dual-threat QB for the third straight week. The D shored things up nicely in the win over Ohio U., limiting the Bobcats to 118 yards on the ground, 70 of those coming on a scramble by quarterback Nathan Rourke.

The defensive line got good pressure all afternoon long, sacking Rourke three times, the first sack, on the game’s first series, forcing a Rourke fumble that Virginia quickly turned into points on an 18-yard TD run by Ellis.

It will be incumbent to keep up the pressure on Cunningham, in his first start, but to do so carefully, with the line and backers staying in their lanes to keep contain, because Cunningham, being a novice, will tuck it and run early in his reads.

Preview by Chris Graham