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STEVE DeSHAZO: As rivals struggle to field a team, Cavaliers are gaining a healthy respect

STEVE DeSHAZO: As rivals struggle to field a team, Cavaliers are gaining a healthy respect

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Louisville Virginia Football

Louisville’s Malik Cunningham (3) confronts Virginia’s Nick Grant, a former standout at Courtland High School. Cunningham was the lone offense for the Cardinals on Saturday

CHARLOTTESVILLE—You can’t tell the players without a roster, according to the old adage. In college football 2020, that list changes by the week, day and even hour.

The most important statistic this season isn’t rushing or passing yardage or turnover margin. It’s availability. The team with a greater subset of key players is likely to have a major advantage—if the games are played at all.

Virginia’s 31–17 victory over Louisville Saturday was sparked by the Cavalier defense’s three forced turnovers—including an 85-yard interception return by Noah Taylor—and two big fourth-down stops. Those plays might not occurred, though, had the visitors been at full strength.

A week after having to postpone the game, the Cardinals had to leave some key personnel home. Among them were the Atlantic Coast Conference’s leading rusher, Javian Hawkins, and their most productive receiver, Tutu Atwell, as well as rotational key defensive linemen. School officials aren’t required to give explanations for their absences, but the coronavirus and contact tracing have struck nearly every team in the country—some far more seriously than others.

“It’s just like any game. We don’t know who the other team’s going to have or not have until you stand out there in warmups,” Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “You ought to try to hire a firm to see who’s available on each team. ... With the late testing, you never know who’s in or who’s out.”

Without Hawkins (822 yards) and Atwell (40 catches, five touchdowns), the normally explosive Cardinals were reduced to a one-dimensional offense, dependent almost completely on quarterback Malik Cunningham’s legs.

“No. 10 [Hawkins], No. 1 [Atwell] and No. 3 [Cunningham] were our main focus for the past two weeks,’ Virginia senior linebacker Zane Zandier said. “The fact that those guys were down [inactive], we realized [Cunningham] would be their main guy, and we could kind of focus on containing him.”

A lot of good it did. Cunningham shredded the Cavaliers for 127 rushing yards and a touchdown in the first half alone and finished the day with 197 yards and two scores. That’s more than twice the rushing yardage Lamar Jackson rolled up against Virginia during his 2016 Heisman Trophy-winning season.

Trailing just 24–17 with 8 ½ minutes to go, Cunningham ripped off a 27-yard run into Virginia territory. But as his teammates wrapped up Cunningham, Courtland High School graduate Nick Grant stole that ball from the Louisville cornerback, arguably the biggest play of his college career. The offense parlayed the turnover into a game-sealing touchdown drive.

“It went from the coaches being furious on the headset because we weren’t tackling him very well to elation, all in a split second,” Mendenhall said. “Hustle plays matter.”

Emotions can swing that way based on a positive coronavirus test as well. Fifteen FCS games scheduled for Saturday were either postponed or canceled, including more than half of the Southeastern Conference schedule.

No team was at completely full strength; Mendenhall’s Cavaliers were so thin at quarterback that they didn’t call a single designed run for quarterback Brennan Armstrong. (He scrambled 15 times anyway.)

Said Mendenhall: “I’m still learning, growing an developing the protocols for the best way to play football in a pandemic.”

The Cavaliers (3–4) were rightly proud of their discipline through preseason preparation and are probably in as good a shape as any team to make it to the end of a uniquely challenging season. They’ve won two straight and should get back to .500 against Abilene Christian next Saturday.

Then they’ll finish up with Florida State (2–5 entering play Saturday night), Boston College (5–4) and Virginia Tech (4–4).

“We divided it up into two seasons,” Armstrong said. “In the first season, we didn’t play well as an offense. But shoot, after [a close loss to] Miami, [beating] UNC and this game, we’re building momentum. We honestly think we can win every [remaining] game. It’s how we prepare.”

And, even more importantly, how healthy they can remain.

Steve DeShazo: 374-5443

sdeshazo@freelancestar.com

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