Key for UVA’s defense is to stop run, take away Cunningham’s deep throws

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Louisville quarterback Micale Cunningham is chased by NC State defenders (Photo: gocards.com).

Virginia defensive coordinator Nick Howell knows how explosive Louisville quarterback Malik Cunningham can be.

Two weeks ago, Cunningham lit up Virginia Tech’s defense for a career-high 350 yards and three touchdowns in rallying the Cardinals from a 21-0 deficit. Louisville lost the game, 42-35, in part to three Cunningham interceptions, but the dual-threat quarterback proved he is a force to be dealt with.

In fact, over his last two games, Cunningham has passed for 628 yards while completing 66 percent of his throws. He doesn’t run quite as much as he has in the past, but the Louisville gun slinger is particularly dangerous on his deep throws to talented, experienced receivers Tutu Atwell and Dez Fitzpatrick.

That’s bad news for Howell and UVA’s defense, which is ranked at the very bottom of the 15-team ACC in pass defense. The Cavaliers are giving up 310 yards per game through the air, mostly due to a hobbled secondary.

Two of Virginia’s most experienced defensive backs, Joey Blount and Brenton Nelson, have missed most of the last three games after suffering injuries early in the Wake Forest loss. Opposing quarterbacks have taken advantage of the inexperienced replacements, including UNC’s Sam Howell, who threw for 443 yards and four TDs against the Cavaliers a few weeks ago in the Cavaliers’ last outing.

Howell said this week that his biggest challenge is to decide how to cover and contain Cunningham. If he decides his defense should sit back in zones, then it will give Cunningham an opportunity to run for yardage. Should he decide to play man-to-man coverage, then Cunningham can throw the ball.

That’s why UVA must shut down Louisville’s running attack, which features Javian Hawkins, who is averaging 6.2 yards per carry and already has 822 yards rushing this season (seven TDs). While Cunningham has run the ball less, he still has 72 attempts for 220 yards and a 3.1 average.

If the Cavaliers front seven can control the line of scrimmage and hold Hawkins intact, then Cunningham will not be able to take advantage of the Cardinals play-action, which Howell described as “exceptional.”

It will definitely be a game of checkers as Howell may call for what he calls “extra hats” (bringing up safeties) to stop the run. If Louisville can’t run the ball, that essentially eliminates Cunningham’s play-action and forces him to beat Virginia with his arm, which he is more than capable of doing.

Meanwhile, the very aggressive Howell will have to weigh home much blitzing he will do in order to pressure Cunningham into bad throws. He was picked off three times by the Hokies two weeks ago, and Louisville has been turnover prone most of the season.

The good news for Howell is that he’s had an extra week of preparation to research and game plan against Cunningham & Co.

Virginia and Louisville opened as a pick ‘em in the betting world, but the Cavaliers have since become a 3-½ to 4-point favorite.

A win would boost UVA to 3-4 on the season (3-4) in the ACC, and give the Cavaliers an opportunity to get to .500 next week against nonconference foe Abilene Christian. The remainder of the Cavaliers schedule includes a road game to Florida State, a home closer against Boston College on Dec. 5, then a regular season ending against rival Virginia Tech in Blacksburg on Dec. 12.

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