Big Plays On Tap As Virginia Tech Travels To Louisville

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Scott Satterfield Louisville vs. Virginia Tech
Louisville head coach Scott Satterfield barks out directions during the second half of the Cardinals’ win over Florida State. (Jamie Rhodes-ACC Pool)

Virginia Tech at Louisville

With a penchant for making big plays on offense and allowing big plays on defense, the 2020 Louisville Cardinals are probably one of the most entertaining teams in college football.  They have a knack for making the highlight reels, for better or for worse.

Last week’s Wake Forest game aside, Virginia Tech has been a team that has generated a lot of big plays on offense, but they haven’t exactly been stalwarts on the defensive side of the ball.  All the numbers indicate that this will be a fun game with lots of big plays and plenty of points.  Of course, the numbers also indicated the same thing before the Wake game, and that’s not exactly what we got.  In 2020, who really knows?

Louisville is 2-4 on the season.  After beating Western Kentucky 35-21 to open the season, the Cardinals were beaten 47-34 by a good Miami team.  There’s no shame in that.  Then they lost to Pitt 23-20. However, the next week they lost to Georgia Tech 46-27 after holding a 21-7 lead early in the game and a 27-26 lead at the end of the third quarter.  They followed that up by losing to a COVID-laden Notre Dame team 12-7, and then they smoked Florida State 48-16 last weekend.

This game will be a bit different for the fans, and it will certainly be different for the players.  Between 11-12 thousand people have attended each of Louisville’s home games this season, so this will be the first time this season that Tech players have played in front of a big crowd (by 2020 definitions).

Malik Cunningham directs the Louisville offense. (Jamie Rhodes-ACC Pool)

Big Play Offense

The Louisville offense isn’t rated as highly as you might think, but they are an offense that is conducive to SportsCenter highlight reels because of their ability to generate big plays.

The Cardinals rank No. 43 nationally in total offense at 416.5 yards per game.  These days, that’s not very many.  By comparison, the Hokies rank No. 21 in total offense at 474.2 yards per game.  Likewise, if you look at the advanced metrics, here’s where Louisville ranks in the ACC…

Offense: No. 7
Passing: No. 8
Pass Blocking: No. 8
Receiving: No. 4
Running: No. 11
Run Blocking: No. 4

With such middle-of-the-pack numbers, why do we hear so much about the Louisville offense?  Because when they do move the football, they do it with big plays, and big plays are Twitter-friendly and ideal for SportsCenter highlights.  Here’s where the Cardinals rank nationally in terms of big plays generated…

10+ yard plays: No. 16
20+ yard plays: No. 8
30+ yard plays: No. 10
40+ yard plays: No. 6

The party line from Justin Fuente since Monday is that the Louisville offense has the potential to score whenever and wherever they have the ball, and he’s correct.  However, between those big plays, the offense hasn’t done very much, and that revolves around the inconsistency of quarterback Malik Cunningham (6-1, 195, r-Jr.).

Cunningham was a dominant player for the Cardinals last season, but his numbers have taken a hit so far this season.  Turnovers in particular have given him a problem, at least in comparison to last season.  Here are his 2019 and 2020 numbers….

2019: 62.4%, 2,061 yards, 11.6 yards per attempt, 22 TDs, 5 INTs, 194.8 rating
2020: 62.9%, 1,396 yards, 8.4 yards per attempt, 12 TDs, 5 INTs, 150.8 rating

Cunningham had 179 passing attempts in 12 games, which left him one attempt short of qualifying for official NCAA statistics, which require 15 attempts per game. Had he qualified, he would have finished No. 2 in the nation in pass efficiency, behind only Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow.

Cunningham’s yards per attempt number is down, and he’s already thrown as many interceptions in 2020 as he did all of last season.  I don’t know off the top of my head why his numbers have regressed, but it could be as simple as the entire 2020 situation.  Hendon Hooker was supposed to progress in the passing game this year, but couldn’t because he had no spring practice, a lot of his receivers were out in August, and then he himself was out for a couple of weeks.  I don’t know Cunningham’s offseason situation, but this year I’m not going to be quick to judge most players, whether they play for Virginia Tech or somebody else.

Cunningham hasn’t been a very accurate passer, with an accurate throw rate of just 46.6%, which ranks 13th in the ACC.  In other words, he makes a “good” throw less than 50% of the time, with his receivers having to work hard to catch many of his passes.  He completes just 27.9% of his passes when pressured, as compared to 74.4% when he isn’t pressured, so that’s something to keep an eye on. 

Cunningham’s yards per carry has dropped from 4.0 last season to 2.7 this year, and Louisville doesn’t seem to be calling as many designed running plays, with the vast majority of his 173 rushing yards coming on scrambles.  I think Tech’s new scheme will do better against mobile quarterbacks generally speaking, especially with regards to how the defensive ends play.  However, Tech’s current athleticism at linebacker – particularly when Rayshard Ashby and Dax Hollifield are on the field together – makes me worry about how the Hokies will handle scrambles, so that’s something to watch.

Javian Hawkins is an explosive running back for the Cardinals. (Jamie Rhodes-ACC Pool)

The two skilled position players to keep an eye on are wide receiver Tutu Atwell (5-9, 165, Jr.) and running back Javian Hawkins (5-9, 196, r-So.).  Atwell was underrecruited coming out of the Miami area because of his size (he was only about 150 pounds at the time), but he’s developed into a very good player.  He has 32 catches for 450 yards, and he’s averaging 14.1 yards per catch.  However, he’s capable of being even better.

Last season Atwell caught 70 passes for 1,276 yards and averaged 18.2 yards per catch.  He’s a big-time deep threat when things are clicking, though things haven’t been clicking quite as much this season.  With Atwell and Cunningham not putting up the same numbers as they were a year ago, Louisville fans are probably wondering what’s going on.  Even with their statistical regression, however, they are both still capable of lighting it up if the Tech defense isn’t ready to play.

One offensive player whose production is not down is Hawkins.  As a redshirt freshman last season, he ran for 1,525 yards and averaged 5.8 yards per carry.  This year he’s put up 693 yards while averaging 6.0 yards per carry.  He’s one of the best running backs in a conference that is loaded with very good running backs.

Up front, Louisville is best on the interior.  Center Cole Bentley (6-3, 314, Sr.) is their best offensive lineman, with left guard Caleb Chandler (6-4, 310, r-Jr.) also playing well this season.

I can’t quite put my finger on this 2020 Louisville offense.  They are capable of blowing up and scoring 40 points on the Hokies, but their inconsistency has been maddening (if you are a Louisville fan).  They are the type of offense that will hit you with a 60-yard touchdown run, go three-out-out for four straight possessions, and then break off a 70-yard pass for another score.  I think Saturday’s game will feature lots of peaks and valleys for the Virginia Tech defense.

The Louisville defense, shown here chasing Georgia Tech’s Jahmyr Gibbs, gives up a lot of big plays. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Defense: Better Than First Glance

Miami scored 47 points against Louisville, with Georgia Tech scoring another 46, and those two games probably have you thinking that the Cardinals don’t play any defense.  That was my impression before researching this article.  The truth is that their defense is middle of the pack.  It’s neither good nor bad.

As far as traditional stats go, Louisville is No. 44 in the country, allowing 383.8 yards per game.  Here’s how Pro Football Focus ranks them against the other ACC programs…

Overall: No. 8
Rushing: No. 7
Tackling: No. 7
Pass Rush: No. 10
Coverage: No. 9

With the Georgia Tech and Miami scores, I would have assumed lower defensive rankings.  Then again, they have since held Notre Dame to 12 points (the Irish were coming off their COVID issues) and Florida State to 16 (whatever that’s worth). 

As big plays have been the strength of the Louisville offense, they have been the weakness of the Cardinals’ defense…

10+ yard plays: No. 88
20+ yard plays: No. 61
30+ yard plays: No. 82
40+ yard plays: No. 86

The Hokies should be able to generate some big plays against the Louisville defense, particularly with the Cardinals being a mediocre tackling team.

Three of Louisville’s best defenders are up front.  Defensive tackle Jared Goldwire (6-6, 305, Sr.) will line up at nose over Tech center Brock Hoffman, and Hoffman will have to perform at a higher level than he did last week against Wake Forest. 

Outside linebacker Nick Okeke (6-3, 240, r-Jr.) has been good this season, and he’s been equally consistent against the run and the pass.  Fellow outside linebacker Yasir Abdullah (6-1, 225, Jr.) has also been good, though he isn’t on the field for as many snaps as Okeke.

The player in the secondary to keep an eye on is cornerback Kei’Trel Clark (5-10, 165, So.).  Clark is a Liberty transfer who has been the Cardinals’ best defensive back this season.  He is originally from Midlothian, VA, and he picked the Flames over a host of small programs.  It quickly became obvious that he could perform at a higher level, and now he finds himself at Louisville.

(Jamie Rhodes-ACC Pool)

The weakness of the Louisville defense comes up the middle.  If you get by Goldwire at nose guard, then the two inside linebackers have been very weak against the run. CJ Avery (5-11, 230, Sr.) and Dorian Etheridge (6-3, 230, Sr.) are two of the ACC’s worst linebackers in run defense, and they haven’t been too hot against the pass, either.  The interior of Virginia Tech’s offensive line had a bad day against Wake Forest, but they have a chance to redeem themselves on Saturday.

Special Teams

The Cardinals seem decent on special teams, though nothing really stands out as being very good or exceptionally bad.  They’ve used two different punters this year, with both guys (Logan Lupo and Ryan Harwell) putting up similar numbers.  Louisville ranks 83rd in the nation in net punting, at 34.7 yards per punt. Field goal kicker James Turner is 6-of-8, but both of his misses have been beyond 50 yards.

Like the Hokies, Louisville hasn’t been able to get anything going in the punt return game.  Rodjay Burns (6-0, 215, r-Sr.) is averaging just 3.75 yards per return.  He’s an outside linebacker in the Chamarri Conner mold, and it’s a bit different to see a team use a player like that as their primary punt returner.

Kickoff specialist Brock Travelstead hasn’t been particularly effective.  Only 12 of his 33 kickoffs have gone for touchbacks, so there could be an opportunity for Khalil Herbert.  As Tech fans, we probably take it for granted that kickoff guys just boom the ball out of the endzone most times, but that’s not necessarily the case at other schools.

Final Thoughts

Heck, I don’t know.  I picked NC State because of Tech’s COVID issues, and I was wrong.  I picked Tech to beat Duke fairly easily, and they won, but it was close.  I picked them to lose to UNC, and they did.  I picked them to edge Boston College, and they blew them out.  I picked them to beat Wake in a close, high scoring game, and they lost a close, low scoring game.  It’s all over the place.

So I’ve consulted two experts.  I asked an online Magic 8-ball whether or not Virginia Tech will beat Louisville, and the answer I got was: “my sources say no.”  Well, that stinks.  So what will the final score look like?  Using a random number generator with the minimum number of two and the max number of 60, the final score will be Louisville 23, Virginia Tech 6.  Well, that doesn’t seem likely, does it?  But this year, who really knows?

With that nonsense out of the way, let’s get serious now.  The Hokies have been a bit up and down, but not as up and down as Louisville.  Generally speaking, Virginia Tech under Justin Fuente does well after a loss, with the exception of the 2018 season when most guys they put on the field either lacked talent or were freshmen.  In fact, other than 2018, the Hokies have only lost two games in a row under Fuente twice: Miami and Georgia Tech in 2017, and UVA and Kentucky last year (and bowl games are always a crapshoot anyway).  Whenever the Hokies lose under Fuente, if there’s a fixable reason for the loss, that usually gets fixed in the week between games.  I’m assuming the penalties and turnovers don’t happen this week, at least not as much, and that Tech plays a cleaner game.

Chris’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 34, Louisville 27

Will Stewart’s Take: This one is really a crap shoot. There’s just not a lot to differentiate these two teams, with one exception: Louisville is more explosive offensively from more positions. The trio of Cunningham, Hawkins and Atwell can put up chunk yardage, as Chris pointed out. Here are some samples from their game against Florida State:

I expect the Cardinals to get theirs, so the Hokies are going to have to get theirs, too. As we detailed in numerous articles this week, Virginia Tech’s offensive performance against Wake Forest was uncharacteristically poor, from quarterback Hendon Hooker (second worst game of his career per PFF) to the offensive line to the wide receivers and even tight end James Mitchell. I don’t think you’ll see a repeat this week. The Hokies will play better and will have a better response to a team that focuses on shutting down the run.

Turnovers and penalties don’t tell much of a story. Louisville’s turnover margin is -1.33 per game, but that’s due mostly to a nasty -8 deficit in their first four games. Since then, they only have one turnover on their last two games. As for penalties, each team commits about six penalties per game for about 50-55 yards per game, so that’s a wash. Virginia Tech’s ten penalties last week, tied for the most under Justine Fuente (ten against Cincinnati in the 2018 Military Bowl) were uncharacteristic for a Justin Fuente-led team, and the yardage (112) was the most ever under Fuente. That won’t repeat.

I’d give Louisville the edge due to their offensive skill players, but I have a feeling that Virginia Tech is going to bounce back from last week’s poor performance with a more focused effort. The onus is on the Virginia Tech offensive coaching staff to have adjustments if the run game fails. As always, turnovers can throw a prediction out of whack, but I’ll ignore my head and trust the VT bounce-back theory.

Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 35, Louisville 31


What's your prediction for the 2020 Virginia Tech-Louisville football game?

  • Hokies Win by 11+ (16%, 139 Votes)
  • Hokies Win by 1-10 (45%, 400 Votes)
  • Louisville Wins by 1-10 (26%, 235 Votes)
  • Louisville Wins by 11+ (13%, 116 Votes)

Total Voters: 890

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Last Week’s Virginia Tech-Wake Forest Prediction Poll Results

Game result: Wake Forest 23, Virginia Tech 16

What's your prediction for the 2020 Virginia Tech-Wake Forest football game?

  • Hokies Win by 11+ (49%, 692 Votes)
  • Hokies Win by 1-10 (44%, 611 Votes)
  • Wake Forest Wins by 1-10 (6%, 81 Votes)
  • Wake Forest Wins by 11+ (1%, 19 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,403

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16 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. I chose 1-10 point loss. No confidence in ability to stop the run. If I were Louisville, I’d keep running it down our throats. Also, think we lack speed at the WR postion…no one really stretching the field that much. Hope I’m wrong!!!

  2. Loserville 34-Good Guys 20

    The CJF criticism kicks into high gear after this one, especially lack of Defensive recruiting.

  3. Fifth Fu year, one of the leading rushers in the country, defense held the other team to 6 second half points last week, one of the best o lines in the conference.outstanding kickers, almost the entire team available and a second week to prepare together.

    What more could you possibly ask for?

  4. COVID aside, I’m guessing they are missing their 1st round left tackle (Becton) which is showing up in the shorter throws (less time in the pocket) and being hurried more consistently. Imagine if we had to replace Darrisaw without a ready-made starter.

  5. Will & Chris. I admire you picking the Hokies. However, from the read, it doesn’t seem like you have your hearts in your picks.

    I hope you are both correct. Wake still stings.

  6. Cards by 17 is my prediction which I hate to say. No confidence in Hokies at this point. Hope I’m wrong!!!!

  7. Gulp. We may get boat raced.

    Or we may win. Like CC and WS, I have no idea what to think anymore. I will just try to enjoy college football.

  8. Hokies All, hate to say it, but this looks like a “L” to me. Don’t believe we can score enough to overcome all the “O-Power” that the Cards have. Louisville by 3-10. Sure hope I am WRONG.

    GO HOKIES!!

  9. Chris, it would be helpful if you listed VT’s ranks in the ACC along with the opponents, just as a frame of reference. In this case, how our defense ranks in those same categories in the ACC.

    My prediction, in line with my previous statement that VT tends to cure the ills of the other team, I predict that Atwell will have a great game against us and so will Cunningham.

    1. He is back in the 15° brace.
      This is to hold unstable shoulders in, place.

      HTH’s.
      (St.Christopher bless!)
      b.street

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