We're very fortunate to have the SB Nation network of team-specific sites to work with during game weeks. This week's edition of the Opponent Q&A features a chat with Mark Ennis, contributor at Card Chronicle and general go-to Louisville source. We talk Lamar Jackson, Sheldon Rankins, and the 'Cards off of a bye.
TN: Louisville opened Bobby Petrino's second season of this tour with three consecutive tough losses, but has since bounced back with a couple of wins before the bye week. What were your expectations for this team entering the season, and what are they now?
CC: My expectations where that, barring some positive surprises, they would start 3-2. The only difference has been the disappointing loss to Houston at home in week 2. If you could get honesty from the players and coaches, I think they'd tell you they let Auburn beat them a second time in that game. Not to take anything away from Houston because I think they've got a really solid chance of going undefeated and getting that Gang of Five bowl spot, but Louisville was as undisciplined as I've seen them under Petrino and it really cost them down the stretch. So being 2-3 puts more pressure on the team for the final seven games, but it's not terribly far from where I figured they'd be.
TN: The Cardinals replaced several departing members of the 2014 squad with transfers from all over the country. How much of an impact have these guys made so far? Do you expect the team to improve significantly over the course of the season?
CC: The three transfers (Josh Harvey-Clemons at safety Shaq Wiggins at cornerback, and Devonte Fields at outside linebacker/defensive end) have been big for Louisville. Harvey-Clemons and Wiggins were here last year sitting out their transfer year and both have played really well so far (they have a combined 3 interceptions and 56 tackles). Fields arrived very late in the summer from junior college and it took him several games to shake the rust off. Against Samford and NC State, however, he started looking more like the guy that was the Big 12 defensive player of the year as a freshman. All three will be crucial to Louisville's chances to upset Florida State and make the most of an 0-3 start.
TN: From an outside perspective, the critical point in UL's season so far has been naming Lamar Jackson the starter at quarterback. What does he bring to the offense, and how will Coach Petrino use him against the ‘Noles on Saturday?
CC: You could argue that the first three weeks of the season were Petrino warring against his own inclination that Lamar Jackswon was the best option at quarterback. But after three weeks, it was clear to all that while he has so much to learn, he's the guy most likely to positively make things happen for the offense and not just manage games or avoid mistakes or only take care of the ball. Jackson has the strong arm of all the quarterbacks, he's easily the fastest. In fact, you could argue he's also Louisville's best running back (which is different than saying he's not a quarterback, because he is). He was the entire offense against Auburn. Against NC State he effortlessly took a simple read option 63 yards for a touchdown but more than that he showed some really nice touch and made several nice throws from the pocket. So while he's definitely a project as a passer and reader of defenses, he's freakish as an athlete and given Louisville's offensive line struggles, his mobility has been a major plus.
TN: The Cards check in at 13th by defensive S&P+ to date. What does Todd Grantham like to do schematically with this group, and who are its key players?
CC: The biggest thing I've seen form Grantham is patience this year. As Louisville has worked to develop guys at safety and up front, they've played through some mistakes and blitzed far less than I'm used to seeing from Grantham. But that's all relative. Grantham has been very flexible with personnel, including using four down linemen in a sort of 4-2-5 nickel alignment against NC State in order to help keep an offenses addicted to going side to side from breaking contain. They still like to pressure but they're far more patient with the front four getting pass pressure than they were at any point last year. Grantham's quite content to bring Harvey-Clemons up into the box for run support and he's even more content to let linebacker James Burgess and Keith Kelsey covers inside receivers and tight ends (FSU fans surely remember the game Burgess had against backs and Nick O'Leary last year).
TN: Which match-up do you think is most important to Louisville's success on defense against the FSU offense?
CC: Without question it is Louisville's defensive line against Florida State's offensive line. Sheldon Rankins, DeAngelo Brown, Pio Vatuvei, and Devonte Fields as well as the newly developing depth from Drew Bailey, James Hearns, and edge rusher Trevon Young, have got to win more than their fair share of snaps for Louisville to have a chance. We saw last year what Dalvin Cook is capable of with any space at all against Louisville. We've yet to see what Everett Golson can do at FSU with a pass rush that's not mostly from blitzes. If the Louisville defense can stay ahead of the chains, it can get to Golson and that's the only way they can win.
TN: In which match-ups do you expect the UL defense to have success against the FSU offense, and which concern you?
CC: The Louisville defensive line should do well overall against the run and getting pressure on its own. Like many of its games up to this point, Florida State's offensive line will have its moments running the ball but I suspect no matter the totals Dalvin Cook winds up with (and heaven knows he's capable of huge numbers), it will likely be the aggregate of many booms and many busts.
TN: The ‘Noles currently sit at 6.5-point favorites for Saturday's nooner at Doak. How do you see this one unfolding?
CC: I think Louisville will be as competitive as it was against FSU last year but I'm not willing to call for an upset, especially on the road. My gut says it's similar to the game at Clemson last year where Louisville played lights out defense but couldn't squeeze out enough offense and lost on 4th and goal in the red zone, 23-17. So, I'll call for that, a 23-17 FSU win.
Big thanks to Mark for his time! Be sure to head over to Card Chronicle for all things Louisville.