I got to experience a very unique game environment this weekend as the Cards took on the Tar Heels at Chapel Hill. Instead of watching from home or going to the game, I had a great time cheering on the Cards at a sports bar in Nashville with a group of about 10-12 Louisville fans. If you were to walk into that place, which had fans from several schools present, you would have thought it was a Louisville bar. There were C-A-R-D-S cheers left and right, and screaming after nearly every single play. Needless to say we left a strong impression of Louisville in that place in Nashville. You’re welcome Double Dogs!
The Good: Louisville has found its star running back
For the second straight week there were A LOT of good things that came out of the game, specifically on the offensive side of the ball. Enough can’t be said to describe how dominant of a performance the Cards received from Lamar Jackson, wide receivers Jaylen Smith and Dez Fitzmagic (his new nickname coined by yours truly) as well as the run defense; which held North Carolina to just 17 yards on 23 carries. After a tough opening week on the ground I thought that the breakout performance of Malik Williams was the best thing that came from Louisville’s week two win over North Carolina. There’s always that one fan who points out a prediction they made before everyone else. Well today I am going to be that guy. Two weeks ago when I predicted the outcome of the Purdue game, I thought that there would be a certain running back that would stand out above the others. I was right, just a week too early.
The last time Louisville and Purdue faced off the game ended in a 22-22 tie, however Lamar Jackson wasn’t on the field. Tomorrow night that makes all the difference. Louisville will dominant from the opening kickoff. You’ll become familiar with several new names like Dorian Etheridge, Mekhi Becton, Dez Fitzpatrick. And Lamar Jackson will show everyone why he won the Heisman Trophy last season. Also, don’t be surprised if we are spending a lot of time talking about running back Malik Williams come Monday.
One big takeaway from the opening weekend game against Purdue was that Louisville struggled mightily to run the football with anyone not named Lamar Jackson. Going up against UNC, many expected Louisville to try and get Reggie Bonnafon going early. From the first drive on he really struggled to find running lanes and looked like he lacked the instincts to be able to run the ball well against a stout front seven. On the opening play Lamar showed that he was still going to be able to do whatever he wanted out of the backfield even if the defense tried to take away his running ability. But as the half went on you could see that North Carolina did a great job of staying home against the read option, making it difficult for Jackson to gain big yardage. However, when the coaching staff finally gave Malik Williams a touch he quickly showed what he could do. After taking his first carry for 2 yards, Malik Williams bounced back with several nice runs including a stretch of a 7 yard, 9 yard run, and a 74 yard run. Don’t get me wrong, Reggie Bonnafon has all the physical tools to be a good running back and is a great threat to catch the ball out of the back field, but Malik Williams showed the staff and fans on Saturday who the starting running back should be moving forward. He has great power and vision to run between the tackles as well as the speed and quickness to bounce outside for big gains. Williams will now give Louisville a legitimate threat to keep defenses from targeting in on Lamar Jackson whenever Petrino calls a run option read. Once Jeremy Smith returns from injury, hopefully in time for this weekend’s big match up, I think Louisville has three very good options to put on the field that are capable of doing very different things.
The Bad: The Tax Boys aren’t collecting
There’s nothing worse than giving up a 54 yard gain on the opening drive of the game to your opposition, unless it’s making Brandon Harris look like an NFL Quarterback. After starter Chaz Surrat went down with a leg injury, Brandon Harris, the LSU transfer who has been awful over the last two seasons, got the call and he picked up right where Surrat had left off; picking apart Louisville’s secondary. After Purdue exposed Trumaine Washington’s inability to cover deep downfield last week, North Carolina did the same thing with very similar success. All the blame can’t be put on one player, as the entire secondary struggled to keep guys in check. Often enough you saw big plays given up where no corner was even near a receiver, leaving the Cards defense to look at each other asking the question “where were you?” In total the Louisville secondary gave up a combined 14 passing plays over 10 yards to Surratt and Harris, as well as 8 catches for 120 yards receiving to receiver Austin Proehl. Statistics like those surely won’t fly this weekend when #2 Clemson comes to town. Defensive Coordinator Peter Sirmon will have to get creative with his game plan to stop Kelly Bryant, especially if star corner Jaire Alexander misses his second straight game. With explosive targets like Deon Cain and Ray Ray McCloud combined with Bryant’s ability to throw on the run, corner’s Trumaine Washington and Ronald Walker will be susceptible to giving up big plays when forced to cover for longer than usual. But if Jaire Alexander is healthy and able to play, I would expect a similar performance to last year’s game against Clemson where he picked off Deshaun Watson twice and forced him to throw in other directions.
What’s next: Game Day is back again
The stars aligned perfectly for the Cards big rematch against Clemson after they took care of business against North Carolina. With the damage of Hurricane Irma in South Florida, Miami & Florida State were forced to call of the game, which held the 8:00 primetime kick off on ABC and was the likely destination for ESPN’s College Game Day. That prompted Louisville’s athletic department to do whatever they could to get Game Day in town, which is now official and will take place in front of Gravenmeyer Hall, and kickoff moved to the 8:00 slot for ABC. We’ve said this at least once every year for many years, but this is likely the biggest game in Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium history. Going up against the defending national champions, who are coming off a huge win against an SEC powerhouse in Auburn, combined with Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson putting up just as impressive if not more impressive numbers from a season ago. This game would be a huge win for both programs, but would mean a lot more for a Louisville team that is right on the cusp of making a push for its first ACC Championship and a bid to the College Football Playoff. If Louisville pulls out its first win against Clemson since joining the ACC, we may be talking about Saturday night for many years to come.
P.S. Don’t be that guy or gal who doesn’t wear black to a blackout