Louisville's season hasn't gone as the Cardinals had hoped, even with Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson continuing to put up huge numbers.
Bowl eligibility that was considered a lock when the season began is currently tenuous for the Cardinals (5-4, 2-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) after three losses in their past four league games. Last week's bye provided Louisville an opportunity to refresh, and the immediate goal is reaching the six-win threshold for postseason eligibility as it tries to salvage the remainder of a disappointing fall.
"Obviously, we'd have liked to have been in the running for the conference championship," coach Bobby Petrino said this week. "But right now it's about just winning football games and the seniors understanding that they don't have a lot left."
The Cardinals' first step toward achieving that simple one-game-at-a-time objective is clearing Virginia (6-3, 3-2), which is bowl eligible for the first time since 2011 and pursuing its highest win total since finishing 8-5 that season.
Never miss a local story.
Louisville leads the series 3-2 and has won the past two matchups against the Cavaliers. History suggests another tight showdown, with the average margin of victory just 3.8 points per game in all five meetings.
Virginia is coming off a 40-36 victory over Georgia Tech achieved on Kurt Benkert's 27-yard touchdown pass with 1:22 remaining. Second-year coach Bronco Mendenhall is pleased with how his team overcame the disappointment of consecutive losses to rally for a win that ensures they will play next month.
A bigger challenge awaits the Cavs on Saturday against Jackson, who has combined for 3,837 yards of total offense and 32 touchdowns. He's just 395 yards behind this same point last season and has had a week off after combining for 491 in a 42-32 loss at Wake Forest .
Though Virginia has improved, it must show how much against a Heisman winner who's also better — and rested.
"It's Lamar Jackson 2.0 after more seasoning and more experience," Mendenhall said, "and he's still capable of running the football for a touchdown on almost any play."
Some other things to watch as Virginia visits Louisville:
DEFENSIVE GROWTH: The Cardinals' defense needed the break to regroup after yielding a season-high 625 yards at Wake Forest. They've allowed an average of 567 in their last three defeats and have struggled against the pass. Petrino said cornerback Jaire Alexander could play after missing the previous game with a broken hand, which might help against a Cavaliers offense that ranks seventh in ACC passing at 256 yards per contest and ninth in total offense at 371.
DEFENDING JACKSON: Mendenhall is Virginia's defensive coordinator and how shown a knack for slowing down problematic offenses and individual standouts. Jackson threw for 361 yards and four TDs last season in Charlottesville — including the game-winner with 13 seconds left — but was not nearly as disruptive against Mendenhall's scheme as he was in other games. Jackson managed just 88 rushing yards.
FULL STRENGTH: The Cardinals could have more running backs available to take some of the load off Jackson, who has 1,029 yards rushing and 14 TDs. Malik Williams had just two carries at Wake Forest after returning from injury but is close to full speed. Dae Williams is also healthy after being banged up in that game.
TOP TACKLER: Cavaliers inside linebacker Micah Kiser enters the game leading the ACC with 10.8 stops per game, which also ranks sixth nationally. He sacked Jackson twice last year and had a game-high 14 tackles, with three for loss.
AP Sports Writer Hank Kurz Jr. in Charlottesville, Virginia, contributed to this report.