What 2 Watch 4 is back! I’m going to give you 4 ‘things’ to watch during the game – player match-ups, strengths/weaknesses, etc. – so you’ll have a sense of what to watch for as the game plays out. I’m going to give you 4 keys to the game, so to speak, based on my research of this opponent, and 2 predictions based on those things we’ll be watching to play a large role in the eventual outcome of the game. Ergo, you have “what 2 watch 4”.
The start of a new season comes with way more questions than answers, even for a team like Louisville with a lot of continuity both in the coaching staff and in the depth chart. You’ll see a lot of familiar faces on the field and on the sidelines in red and white. You’ll also see a familiar face, as you know, on the opposite sideline in Louisville’s own Jeff Brohm. We all know Jeff Brohm as an offensive mind from the Bobby Petrino coaching tree. What we don’t know is how this Purdue team can run Brohm’s offense and how they’ll match up with this year’s crop of Cardinals. I think there are a few things that can determine the outcome of the game:
Pressure on Purdue *QB David Blough can win the game on the defensive side of the ball for Louisville
Blough’s 25 TDs and 21 INTs last season aren’t impressive numbers. He did, however, complete 57.1% of his passes and threw for 3,352 yards, which made him one of the best passers in the Big Ten and top 25 in the nation in both total yards and yards per game. Blough’s big weapon last year, WR DeAngelo Yancey, is now a Green Bay Packer, and while his returning corps isn’t the most intimidating Louisville will see this season, there are several faces some old, including RB Markell Jones out of the backfield, and some new that are capable and a few that are real threats down field. With the Louisville D’s kryptonite in recent seasons having been the occasional big play, it will be critical for the Cards to make life difficult for Blough. The passing game was Purdue’s strength on offense last season and will without a doubt be the focus under their new head coach. If Louisville struggles to pressure Blough, turnovers or otherwise, there are enough weapons there at Jeff Brohm’s disposal to really challenge Louisville.
*This is obviously partially dependent on David Blough being fully recovered from his shoulder strain and playing in this game, which I think we all should expect to happen. Either way this is a key to the game, and it will either be the key to stopping Purdue’s best offensive weapon or the key to exploiting a weakness if he’s unavailable.
Forget the “prove you can throw” stuff this game. Run the ball, Lamar.
Purdue ranked worse than 110th in the country in both scoring defense and rushing defense last season, giving up 238 yards per game on the ground and 35 TDs through the 2016 season. On the flip side, they were one of the better pass defenses in the country and return a lot of guys on that side of the ball. Lamar may have a lot of folks suggesting he show the NFL scouts he can throw the ball, but he won a Heisman trophy, and won his team quite a few games, with his playmaking ability and a lot of that was running with the football. While there’s definitely a need to stretch the field, spread the ball around to his playmakers, and find some balance to make us more difficult to defend, establishing the run game is priority 1 and we have the best weapon in football to do that. Do that and the scoreboard should light up and opportunities should open up for other playmakers.
Win the trenches, limit sacks and gain positive yards on each rush.
This one’s obvious – Football 101, the offensive line is vitally important, the game is won or lost in the trenches, other cliches. The thing is though, this was Louisville’s biggest weakness last season, and it’s the biggest question mark this season. Neither team has a ton of returning starters on the line, so both teams will have a lot to prove. While Purdue’s expectations surround building for a brighter future under Jeff Brohm, though, Louisville’s expectations are to allow a Heisman winner at QB to thrive, and an extremely talented group of skilled position players to make highlights and light up scoreboards. This is an inexperienced group that can make or break the best offense in football and a team with playoff ambitions (and possibilities). The first game of the season is about getting the ball rolling and establishing momentum, and this is the perfect matchup for them to kickstart the season. It’s harsh to put pressure on a young group like that, but this is a must win trench battle both for this game and for the big picture.
Who runs the ball outside of Lamar?
Brandon Radcliff almost quietly played the role of Louisville’s 2nd leading rusher and managed to rack up over 900 yards on just 138 carries, 6.5 per carry. I say quietly just because the spotlight was so much on Lamar Jackson. It’s going to stay that way, but the question of who serves as the secondary runner will have to be answered early in the season to maintain room for Lamar to work. Reggie Bonnafon has been teased as the main guy with Jeremy Smith also firmly in the mix. There’s no doubt there is talent in both of those guys, but you’d have to combine Bonnafon and Smith’s career numbers together to eclipse Radcliff’s 2016 totals. Smith’s carries were limited at just 57 in 2016, but he did average 6.7 yards per, which is spot on with what is required, and he possesses the size and strength to punch the ball into the end zone in red zone possessions as well, so I expect him to carry on with at least a similar role. Bonnafon, on the other hand, had a total of 5 carries all of last season, and his career average of 2.8 yards per carry isn’t confidence-inspiring, but we do know that Bobby likes Reggie, and we’ve never seen him really been given a whole season in a single position, so it’s tough to say what Reggie can do based on inconsistent history. The opportunity will be there, if he can take it. Expect Jeremy Smith to at least be his usual solid self, if not even better. What will be interesting to see in this game is if Bonnafon takes up the torch from Radcliff as the main back or if Smith carries the load. This will be key to winning this game, but it should also be a good gauge for how the run game is going to work and who is going to be a part of that as the season progresses
Prediction 1: 4 different Cardinals not named Lamar Jackson will score
The RB position is a question mark, as we’ve discussed, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a slot guy or two get a carry. The top 3 receiving threats all gradutated, and the 2017 WR & TE positions are talented and deep without an established pecking order yet. The safe bet would be to say this prediction includes defensive and special teams touchdowns, but that’s kinda cheap. I think if Louisville reaches the high 40s or 50s in points total, I think we’re definitely going to see 3 different Cardinals score, and potentially 4 or more, depending on how well the passing game goes. Plus, Purdue (along with everyone else) will make their #1 priority stopping the Heisman winner.
Prediction 2: *David Blough helps Jeff Brohm give college football a glimpse of the future of Purdue football with 300+ passing yards and 3 TDs
*Just like with the first point, this is dependent on Blough playing, which at time of writing it was expected he would
He only topped 2 passing TDs twice last season, and threw for over 300 yards just 5 times. The same could not be said for Western Kentucky’s Mike White’s 2016 campaign though. While Blough and White, like their respective teams, faced very different levels of competition last season, Blough actually averaged more pass attempts than White, throwing nearly 25% more passes (517 to 416). White’s completion percentage was significantly higher at 67% and he had both more receiving weapons and a more high octane offensive scheme. The coach and the scheme are now Blough’s, who I’ll remind you was already a top 25 quarterback, and the receiving corps may not have its NFL caliber #1 option from last season, but it has a better overall depth of talent that should work quite nicely in Brohm’s system. Blough isn’t going to have a Favre (that game) type performance, but the half-injured underdog may actually steal the show at QB in parts of this one.
Louisville should still win, even if it’s close until late. They’re the better team and should be more than capable of outlasting Purdue with a B+ performance. Move the ball well on O, don’t turn it over, and contain big plays on D – the basic stuff for Louisville football – and we’ll be all smiles coming home from Indy
Score Prediction:Louisville 52 – Purdue 31
Andy Knabel joined on as a contributing writer for The Cardinal Connect in August of 2013. You can follow Andy on Twitter @knabelism.