It has been hard to figure out both the Virginia Cavaliers and the Louisville Cardinals this season. Both teams have been inconsistent, which perhaps makes Saturday’s encounter at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium all the more appropriate.
After suffering back-to-back losses to Boston College and Pittsburgh, Virginia (6-3, 3-2 ACC) defeated Georgia Tech 40-36 last week to become bowl eligible. This will be the Cavaliers’ first postseason game since 2011.
Louisville (5-4, 2-4) fell to Wake Forest 42-32 last week and still needs one more win in its final three games (vs. Syracuse, at Kentucky) to go bowling for an eighth straight season.
These teams have met five times previously, three of those in ACC play. Louisville leads the series 3-2 and has won two of the three games since the Cardinals joined the ACC in 2014.
Virginia at Louisville
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 11 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPNU
Spread: Louisville -11.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Kurt Benkert
With an ACC-leading 20 touchdown passes and just six interceptions, Benkert has been of the most productive and efficient quarterbacks in the conference. A graduate transfer from ECU, Benkert has improved on his numbers compared to last year.
He’s just one touchdown away from matching last season’s total, has cut down on his interceptions (11 vs. 6), improved his completion percentage (56.2 to 59.6) and is averaging more passing yards per game (232.0 vs. 253.1). Last year against Louisville, Benkert threw for 238 yards and three touchdowns but also had two picks as the Cardinals won 32-25 in Charlottesville.
Last week, Louisville let Wake Forest quarterback John Wolford torch its defense to the tune of 461 yards and five touchdowns. Given Benkert’s track record this season, he should have some success throwing the ball against the Cardinals on Saturday.
2. Lamar Jackson
Even though Louisville already has matched last season’s loss total through nine games, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner has maintained his level of performance. He leads the ACC with 1,029 rushing yards and is tied for first with 14 rushing touchdowns. Additionally, Jackson has thrown for 2,808 yards with 18 touchdowns and just six interceptions. He’s tops in the ACC in passing yards per game (312.0) and ninth in the FBS.
While a second straight Heisman is out of the question, Jackson is the main reason why the Cardinals are third in the nation in total offense at 549.3 yards per game. They also are averaging 36.7 points per game, which leads the ACC and is 21st in the FBS. As Jackson goes, so does Louisville.
3. Virginia defense
The key to the Cavaliers turnaround this season has been their defense and their discipline. Virginia has fared very well against the pass, ranking 15th in the country at 178.6 yards per game allowed. The Cavaliers also don’t commit penalties (tied for 17th in terms of fewest) and do a great job at controlling the clock (15th in time of possession).
Capitalizing on turnovers and keeping the ball out of Jackson’s hands will be huge keys for Virginia, especially on the road. The Cavaliers are only averaging 26.3 points per game, so limiting Louisville’s scoring opportunities is a must.
While Louisville is in last place in the ACC Atlantic Division, it’s not because of their offense led by the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. Instead, the defense has been the weak link as the Cardinals rank 11th or worse in three of the four major categories (scoring, passing and total defense).
Look for Lamar Jackson to try and take control of this game by establishing the run. If effective, that could open up things for the passing game as Virginia has been one of the best in the nation in that department.
This game could feature plenty of points because of Jackson’s dual-threat ability and Louisville’s suspect defense. But in the end, the Cardinals are the better football team and should emerge victorious.
Prediction: Louisville 34, Virginia 27
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.