Louisville returns reigning Heisman winner Lamar Jackson and little else from the offense that put up thirty-six points in Death Valley. The offensive line returns only two starters and boasts zero seniors, the receiving corps lost WR’s Quick and Staples and TE Hikutini. At RB Louisville is down to QB turned WR turned RB Reggie Bonnafon and former JUCO RB/WR Malik Williams after the injury to Jeremy Smith. The new skill players have performed admirably so far but Purdue and UNC’s defenses aren’t exactly world beaters. The offensive line, however, hasn’t inspired confidence after allowing a 10% sack rate last year. The weaknesses of this offense are palpable, but, if there is anyone in the world who can overcome them it’s Lamar Jackson.
Bobby Petrino comes from the one back school of offensive philosophy, preferring to have one running back and either one or two tight ends on the field the vast majority of the time. This team is more pro style than you’d expect and hasn’t been known for RPO’s or attaching screens to running plays. Louisville has incorporated more under center this year and tries to establish the run with plays such as inside/outside zone, power, counter or G-Lead
Up front their center position is a tire fire and the guards are not good enough to compensate. The Cardinals tackles have played better but have struggled against speed rushers. The number one weakness of the Louisville offense is going to be going against a combination of Lawrence and Wilkins the majority of plays. If Clemson is able to keep Louisville from establishing tempo and running 100 freaking plays again the defensive line should dominate the line of scrimmage. Houston was able to put up 11 sacks against this team last year, LSU 8.
This should free up our linebackers to make plays in the running game. Louisville has been prone to getting into third and long for a while. Lamar Jackson’s improvisational brilliance has usually been good enough to get them out of it.
Petrino since his arrival at Louisville has moved intentionally towards dual threat quarterbacks. This fits naturally with his incorporation of this pistol, which he was running back in his Arkansas days, even if he referred to it as “Shot.” OL coach Chris Klenakis spent a good bit time at Nevada with Chris Ault, whose system, when combined with an NFL quarterback proved itself to be incredibly hard to stop. One of Louisville’s favorite ways to feature Lamar Jackson is to have two tights lead block for him while he runs zone read.
It almost doesn’t matter if the end slow plays the read or not, Lamar Jackson has been guilty of making the wrong read and getting out of it with his supreme athleticism a few times a game for years. He’s good enough to get away with it sometimes, and it masks holes at RB when he can. Bryant and Ferrell are athletic enough to mostly corral him on the edge but given his shiftiness in the open field team tackling is going to be crucial.
Throw in the fact Lamar Jackson might be the best at running the power read since Cam Newton and you’ve got a problem on your hands. While those are his two most effective running concepts Louisville also added a QB draw play which does seem to give Lamar the option to throw to the WR in flats.
Louisville has also dabbled in counter options, speed options and direct snap runs to get Jackson carrying the ball.
Louisville is reloaded at most skill positions. At wide receiver the returning Jaylen Smith and Seth Dawkins possessing excellent size (over 6’3”), Desmond Fitzpatrick living up to his recruiting hype and 5’7” Traveon Samuel doing excellent work out of the slots. At tight end they feature a pair of Mackey award watchlist members in Micky Crum (who put a lot of yards up against Clemson in 2015 before an injury derailed 2016) and Texas A&M transfer Jordan Davis.
Petrino likes to attack the middle of the field in the passing game, usually by pushing the ball vertically. His preferred shallow cross concept is complemented with mesh routes, Mills, smash and three verticals among other NFL level concepts. He’s proven himself capable of coaching some incredibly productive quarterbacks.
This focus on sending receivers vertically often opens up space for running backs underneath, and one of the most terrifying things about Lamar Jackson’s evolution this year is he’s become much more adept at finding them for free yardage when given time.
Louisville likes to run this formation with both WR’s to the field side and either run zone reads with lead blockers to the boundary or throw quick game concepts (a lot of slants and curls) to the two WR’s.
For the most part the Cardinals haven’t thrown the ball outside of the numbers except when Jackson is scrambling, where his receivers can use their size to shield off defenders, make catches and either get out of bounds or take off. These improvisational plays are the Cardinals at their most fun and their most dangerous. The Cardinals also are pretty fond of running play action bombs.
Jackson’s seemingly limitless arm strength combined with preternatural scrambling ability makes him a threat to burn your safeties every time. Secondary discipline will be key for Clemson, Louisville started scoring in droves in the second half last year as a tired unit blew coverages.
Louisville also really has struggled protecting play action concepts this year. For every few plays Lamar scrambles out of it there’s a play like this to remind you of the penchant for turnovers and sacks, the things that sunk Louisville against Houston, Kentucky and LSU.
Blitz pickup has hounded the offensive line for a long time now and this is the first truly aggressive, talented defense Louisville has played this year.
The receiving corps was prone to drops last year, and Jackson’s completion percentage has never been north of 60% for a season, but the Cardinals make up for it with big plays. Throw in a penchant for false starts, bad snaps and turnovers, or as Louisville fans have heard for a long time now “correctable mistakes” and the shape of the Louisville offense becomes pretty clear. This is a team that can be forced off schedule, into errors and ultimately into sputtering out. The Cardinals are also a team that, at their volatile peak, can play as if the defense is a mere annoyance to be swatted aside. I think Venables and co. are capable of keeping this offense to around 24 points. I don’t know, given we only got fourteen last week, if that’ll be enough. Defense is not about total success so much as damage mitigation, even the best defenses usually allow some touchdowns. If Clemson isn’t able to capitalize on Louisville’s mistakes or makes too many of their own they could easily lose.