Sept. 12, 2014
By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In the new-look Atlantic Coast Conference, UVa and Louisville will be seeing a lot of each other in football, and emotions may well run high in the teams’ encounters.
For now, though, there’s none of the animosity that marked Virginia’s series with Maryland, the school Louisville replaced in the conference this year.
“To me it’s just another ACC game,” UVa defensive end Eli Harold said. “It’s another opponent we have to face.”
Eventually, though, “I believe that it will become a rivalry,” Harold said, and the view from the Kentucky side of the border is similar.
“I think the thing that will be unique is that when we do start playing them year-in and year-out, we’ll really get to know all of their players,” said Bobby Petrino, who returned this year for a second stint as Louisville’s head coach.
“We’ll know who their recruits are, and right now everything is so new to us. We’re just learning all about them. But I think it will be fun. We’re going to recruit that area.”
UVa and Louisville have met only twice in football, with each team winning once.
In 1988, the Cardinals edged the visiting Cavaliers 30-28 on a field goal with 10 seconds to play. A year later at Scott Stadium, Virginia was the team celebrating a dramatic field goal. Jake McInerney connected from 37 yards as time expired to lift the Wahoos to a 16-15 victory.
Much has changed in each program since that two-game series.
Virginia, then an ACC power under George Welsh, has finished with a winning record only once in the past six seasons. Louisville, a football independent in the late `80s, has moved from Conference USA to the Big East to the American Athletic Conference to, now, the ACC.
Along the way, the Cardinals have piled up victories, and they capped the 2013 season with a 36-9 rout of the Miami Hurricanes in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
When he learned the Cardinals would be joining the ACC, Virginia center Ross Burbank said Monday, “I was excited about them. They’re traditionally a pretty solid team, a pretty good team. It’s just nice to have good competition in the ACC, as teams are getting better.”
In football, Louisville competes in the ACC’s Atlantic Division, and its permanent partner from the Coastal Division is UVa, which means the teams will play each other every season.
Their first clash as conference foes comes Saturday at 12:30 p.m., when Virginia (1-1) hosts No. 21 Louisville (2-0, 1-0) at Scott Stadium.
The Cardinals, who began the season with another romp over the Miami Hurricanes, this one by a 31-13 score, clobbered Murray State 66-21 last Saturday.
The `Hoos, who opened with a 28-20 loss to then-No. 7 UCLA, also blew out an FCS opponent last weekend, beating Richmond 45-13 at Scott Stadium.
That win snapped a 10-game losing streak for the Cavaliers, but more work remains for them on that front. Virginia has dropped 10 straight games to ACC opponents and 11 straight to FBS teams.
Only one of those losses, however, came this season, UVa players point out. This is a new year, they say, and a new team with more unity and better chemistry than its predecessor.
“Our confidence is up,” Harold said. “We know what we’re capable of doing.”
Harold, a 6-4, 250-pound junior, is among the standouts on a defense that has already forced nine turnovers this season.
“They really rush the quarterback,” Petrino said. “They come off the ball hard.”
Teddy Bridgewater, whose play at quarterback helped lift the Cardinals to national prominence, is now in the NFL, but his successor has impressed this season. Will Gardner, a 6-5, 226-pound sophomore, has completed 33 of 50 passes for 339 yards and four touchdowns, with no interceptions.
“He’s poised back there in the pocket,” UVa head coach Mike London said of Gardner. “He manages the game well … He gets the ball to their playmakers.”
Tailback Michael Dyer, who began his college career at Auburn, is questionable Saturday with a thigh injury, but Louisville’s running game thrived without him against Miami and Murray State.
With Dyer out, the Cardinals’ top tailbacks are 6-2, 241-pound sophomore Dominique Brown and 6-0, 231-pound freshman L.J. Scott, who between them have carried 52 times for 311 yards and three touchdowns.
Brown and Scott run behind an experienced line that will battle an equally seasoned group of Cavaliers.
Of Virginia’s regulars on defense, only free safety Quin Blanding, a true freshman from Virginia Beach, was not in coordinator Jon Tenuta’s system last season.
“It starts off with the veterans,” Harold said. “With veteran guys who’ve been in the system, it allows you as a defensive coordinator to do different things.”
Members of UVa’s offense appreciate the work done by Harold and Co. A stout defense makes things “a lot easier” for the offense, quarterback Greyson Lambert said Wednesday.
“Especially whenever you know that if you have to come off the field and you have to punt,” Lambert said. “You know that they’re going to get the ball back for you, and they’re going to give us as many opportunities as it’s going to take for us to be able to get points on the board and win the ball game. And I know and I trust that that will happen.”
Lambert, a redshirt sophomore, has started each of Virginia’s first two games, and he’s likely to take the first snap again Saturday. But classmate Matt Johns also will play, as he did against UCLA and UR.
“I just think in our situation here, they both earned the right to see some playing time,” offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild said Wednesday. “They’re both young, developing quarterbacks.”
Lambert has completed 29 of 38 passes for 214 yards and one TD, with two interceptions. Johns is 17 of 29 for 219 yards and three TDs, with one interception.
They’ve “done a good job thus far in doing the things that we’ve asked them to do,” London said.
Up front, UVa’s offensive linemen have allowed only one sack this season, but they haven’t consistently opened holes for a talented group of running backs. The return of left tackle Sadiq Olanrewaju, a sophomore who missed the first two games with a knee injury, should bolster the line, which starts only one senior, guard Conner Davis.
“I think we get better every day, and that’s the goal,” offensive line coach Scott Wachenheim said this week.
The line can expect a stern test Saturday. Louisville’s defense is “very fast and athletic,” Fairchild said, “a lot like UCLA … A number of those guys will end up on NFL rosters next year.
“They’re talented and fast, and we’re going to have to put together one of our best games here to move the ball on them.”
The Cavaliers have more rushing attempts (79) than passing attempts (68) this season, and they’ve rarely thrown on first down. Don’t expect a radical change of approach Saturday.
“We are who we are,” Fairchild said. “We’re not equipped to drop back and throw it a ton. Just with the injury situation in the offensive line and where we’re at, we’ve gotta have a good balance and do things a certain way.”