We’re very fortunate to have the SB Nation network of team sites to work with during game weeks. This week’s edition of our Opponent Q&A series features Mark Ennis, writer for SBN’s Louisville site Card Chronicle, and basketball pre and post-game host for ESPN 680 and 93.9 The Ville. We discuss expectations, allocating defenders to Dalvin Cook, and how in the world to go about stopping Lamar Jackson.
TN: The Cardinals returned a talented bunch in 2016 and are off to a very hot start. What were your expectations for the season entering the campaign, and have they changed based on the two impressive wins to date?
CC: I expected Louisville to make a dramatic improvement on offense and to be about the same on defense. Last year they were starting, for most games, a true freshman quarterback, two true and one redshirt freshman offensive linemen, a JUCO tight end in his first year with the team, and early in the year some really green receivers due to injury. So after taking some early season lumps I thought they finished really well. I expected the proverbial freshman to sophomore year jump that we've really across the board on offense.
As for expectations, I think they're basically the same, but even more hardened. I have a hard time seeing Louisville losing any of the nine games that are not Houston, Clemson, or Florida State and those three look harder than I expected coming into the year. So, the nine wins look easier and the three losable games look about as tough or tougher in FSU's case, than I expected.
TN: So, Lamar Jackson is pretty phenomenal. Where has he improved his game from 2015 and how on Earth would you suggest that a defense go about keeping him in check?
CC: I think the biggest thing he's done is run on designed runs and really not bail out after one read on passing plays. In the spring they were determined to make him go through his progressions, so if he took off when they felt there was a throw there for him to make, they would just blow the play dead like it was a sack. It helped him learn to be patient but doesn't totally eliminate the spontaneous run stuff that he's so good at.
TN: Tell us a bit about Louisville’s offensive line. In which positions are you confident against FSU’s defense, and where might they struggle?
CC: I think they're markedly improved over the unit that started at Tallahassee last year. With Khalil Hunter being a quicker player taking over at one guard spot and Lukayus McNeil taking the right (weak) tackle spot they're solid across the board. They're protecting better than a year ago, but still have issues with penalties that I'd like to see ironed out. Are they a good matchup against Florida State's really stellar defensive line? I'm not sure anyone is.
TN: Which offensive skill guys should Seminole fans have their eyes on Saturday afternoon?
CC: Besides Lamar Jackson, you mean? At receiver James Quick finally looks like the five-star signee fans expected to see. He was over 100 yards and had 3 touchdowns against FSU last year in Tallahassee and has been lights out for Louisville so far. Jamari Staples is a bigger receiver that benefits from Quick getting so much attention. The best development this early part of the year is the emergence of Brandon Radclifff and a rushing attack apart from Lamar Jackson. He had 156 yards at Syracuse last week and is a battering ram inside as a complement to Jackson.
TN: The Louisville secondary looked a little shaky at times against Dino Babers’ new air raid attack at Syracuse on Friday night. How are you feeling about this unit and how do you expect them to fare against FSU’s passing game?
CC: I think the good news is that FSU doesn't do the gimmicky stuff that Syracuse does in that Baylor style of offense. But in the second half in both years since joining the ACC, FSU has really had its way with Louisville's defense. Louisville's strong at safety, but the corners are a bit undersized and it's an area FSU has exploited in years past. It's worth paying attention to.
TN: How do you expect Todd Grantham to defend Florida State’s offense? Do you think he’ll elect to stack the box and attempt to make Deondre Francois beat the Cardinals?
CC: I think Grantham has shown a real willingness to be a little more patient up front and blitz a little less than he did in his years at Georgia. At least early on I think he'll hope and try to get pressure with 4 or perhaps 5, hoping that Devonte Fields and James Hearns can have similar success to what Ole Miss had early in the opener against FSU's offensive line. If they can, I suspect Louisville will be content to make FSU be methodical and not overpursue Francois or give Cook space in the screen game.
TN: Finally, give us a prediction. This has to be one of the most fun conference noon games ever played from an anticipation standpoint, right?
CC: I keep coming back to Derwin James and Jalen Ramsey not being in the FSU secondary this year. Both were such physical forces against Louisville's receivers and spying Jackson (in James' case) that their absence this year has me feeling Louisville will find a way to steal this one in a shootout at home, 38-35.
Many thanks to Mark for his insight! Be sure to head over to Card Chronicle for all things Louisville. Our answers to their questions will be up shortly.