It was easy to entertain the idea of a loss in either of the Louisville Cardinals’ first two football games. Not at the onset, of course. UL was heavily favored in both contests. But with a defense that appears incapable of stopping opponents from doing much, you could see the foundation being laid for some potential trouble.
Through two contests, those thoughts have been pushed away by the excellence (and improvement, somehow) of quarterback Lamar Jackson. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner has completed nearly 65 percent of his passes for 771 yards and five touchdowns. On the ground, he’s added another 239 yards and three scores. You knew he was going to run effectively, but the accuracy mark is what’s made this effort so impressive so far. Jackson isn’t forcing anything, and is nearly nine percentage points above his completion rate last year. Not just relying on short balls either, he’s averaging over nine yards per attempt.
The problem is that Louisville is going to need him to do this and more if they want to contend for an ACC championship this season.
Jackson was clearly stellar in 2016, but he had a defense to back him up. The Cardinals were 14th in the country in total defense, allowing 322 yards per game. They allowed 23.8 points per, tallied 30 sacks and forced 25 turnovers. UL’s star quarterback was the reason they were outperforming what recruiting metrics would’ve dictated. But a capable defense was the reason he didn’t have to do it all by himself.
This year, the defense has become a bit of a concern against lesser foes Purdue and North Carolina, respectively. Louisville has already given up 677 passing yards in 2017 (123rd in the country), and is allowing opponents to complete over 65 percent of passes. The run defense has been stout (just 68 yards allowed), but teams also aren’t really trying to run on the Cards to keep up with Jackson’s video game numbers.
That should get put to the test pretty quickly this weekend vs. the Clemson Tigers. Clemson’s averaging 5.69 yards per carry on the ground, with three players (including QB Kelly Bryant) already above the 80-yard mark on the season. The Tigers are also a capable passing team. Despite last week’s slug fest against Auburn, they’ve still thrown for nearly 500 yards and completed 68.2 percent of passes in two games. And one could argue that the Tigers’ receiving corps. has barely even gotten going yet. Junior Ray-Ray McCloud is the only wideout with over 100 yards on the season.
Can Louisville put a stop to that attack this coming Saturday? Results so far do cast some doubts, as the team has struggled to replace core members of last year’s defense. Devonte Fields, Josh Harvey-Clemons, DeAngelo Brown and Keith Kelsey are all gone. After being a magnet to the ball last season, Jaire Alexander has not been able to do the same in 2017 since he’s been sidelined by an injury vs. Purdue. Louisville’s already allowed 28 passing plays of 10 yards or more (10th-most in the country). Only a handful of teams have let up more 20-yard passing plays (eight) this season.
Along with replacing key players from last year’s unit, the Cardinals also changed defensive coordinators in the offseason. DC Todd Grantham basically switched places with Mississippi State’s Peter Sirmon, assuming each other’s former roles. Grantham’s Bulldogs defense is a top-10 unit right now. Mississippi State was among the worst teams in the country in total defense last year.
The transition wasn’t necessarily supposed to be that rocky, from a coaching perspective. Sirmon’s 3-4 defense is similar to Grantham’s, with the added benefit of simplified play-calling. But that hasn’t translated to better results. According to Bill Connelly’s advanced numbers, Louisville isn’t generating the same sort of havoc at the line as they did last year. And they’re among the country’s worst teams on passing downs. Louisville doesn’t face a ton of proficient passing teams (Syracuse, NC State, maybe FSU) beyond this week. But the cause for concern has definitely been laid out already.
It’s week three, and there’s still time to course-correct. However, Saturday should be telling for the Cards’ conference championship hopes. Having a player the likes of Lamar Jackson is a luxury few teams have. Even with that skill set running your offense, though, Louisville will still need to find a way to stop other teams. The wheels fell off this defense late last year, playing a large part in the team’s crawl to the finish. With a more open ACC Atlantic this time around, another slip-up squandering Jackson’s talent would be crushing.