UofL Football: Runnin’ up the score with Lamar Jackson

Lamar Jackson faces a tough matchup Saturday with Clemson. | Courtesy of UofL Athletics

Here’s Louisville’s plan to beat Clemson: They’re gonna outscore ’em.

Yeah, yeah, we hear you hooting. Of course they’re going to try to outscore them. Duh. The idea of the game is to get more points than the other team.

Except we’re not talking about winning 10-9 or 24-21. This is about scoring. Really scoring. Rolling up 40 points on the country’s No. 3-ranked team, a defending national champion that boasts what many consider the top defense in college football.

And did we say 40? How about 50?

That’s what Louisville’s game is all about: Pouring on the points. And the Cardinals have just the man who can fly a team down the field in a flash and score points in deluges — quarterback Lamar Jackson.

If Clemson is the defending national champion, Jackson is the defending Heisman Trophy winner. Our simple game analysis is if Jackson can throw and throw, and go and go, Louisville will score, and score big. More than Clemson, it says here.

Now, that might not happen.

If Clemson can throw a lasso on Jackson and hold Louisville to a few field goals, the Tigers could win going away. You’ll note that No. 3 Clemson is about a field goal favorite over No. 14 Louisville in the betting lines. And that’s with Louisville playing at home in Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. A sell-out crowd of 55,000-plus is expected. Game time 8 p.m.; ABC, WLKY-TV; radio WKRD-790 AM.

Coach Bobby Petrino with Lamar Jackson | Courtesy of UofL Athletics

But if Jackson can throw and get away and go, then Louisville will be the first team to score a touchdown on Clemson this season. And it won’t be just one.

That’s the Cardinal’s game. That’s the high-octane trademark of coach Bobby Petrino. The team is tailored for speed, and things happen fast.

So — if all goes well — mark Louisville down for 40 points. You read it here.

The 50 points? Well, that was probably more for effect. To get separation from other experts.

Anyhow, that’s how Louisville can win. If it’s 10-9, or 24-21, as previously mentioned, that’ll be Clemson.

The 1-ball and other throws

The chances for Louisville to be the first team to 40 points are good.

It’s like a top-class racehorse rounding into form. After running around Purdue in a limber-up victory over Purdue, Jackson got loose last week at North Carolina, passing and running to direct his team to a 705 yards offensive performance. That’s seven full football fields.

Lamar’s got it going.

“He’s just getting better as a quarterback,” says Petrino. “The ability to throw the 1-ball, the hummer. The ability to take something off it. To throw the seam route, the deep post. You’re seeing all those things show up now, the things he works extremely hard at all the time.”

That’s coach’s jargon, of course, seam route, deep post. But doesn’t it sound great? Like the sound track of a Lamar replay: Jackson spotting wide receiver Jaylen Smith as Smith crosses to the middle. Rifling the ball on a rope — and Smith is gone.

Wide receiver Jaylen Smith | Courtesy of UofL Athletics

Or that one where Jackson gets set, then steps up a step while blockers and rushers clash all around him — snapping his wrist to zip a line drive deep to Dez Fitzpatrick zooming toward the goal posts. The ball is thrown just a bit over the receiver’s right shoulder, rather than his left, but Fitzpatrick just swivels a little in stride and he, too, is gone.

Petrino says he really liked that play.

“They brought a corner off the edge, and we missed blocking it,” recalls Petrino. “(Lamar) stepped up and kept two hands on the ball, reset his feet and threw a strike for a 75-yard touchdown.

“That shows a lot of maturity, whereas a year ago, and I know for sure two years ago, he would have just took off and ran. To be able to have that poise in the pocket, to feel it and see it, to have that quick release and accuracy says a lot about his maturity and how far he has come in his game.”

Jackson will offer new looks for the Louisville offense. | Courtesy of UofL Athletics

Jackson thinks so, too. After Purdue, he said he is recognizing when to do what. A year ago, when he didn’t see anyone open right away, he’d just skeedaddle. That worked out well — sometimes. He’s a fabulous runner. But sometimes they’d trap him for losses.

“You know you don’t want to hear, ‘Stop taking sacks.’ You just want to do the right thing,” says Jackson.

With experience has come a better recognition of everything happening around him — and downfield where the receivers roam.

“I think I’m throwing the ball more,” says the junior quarterback. “Just air it out, like coach always says.”

He’s more in charge of the game.

“I’m just trying to get the ball out of my hand on time and find the easy targets. Make positive plays, not negative.”

No blitz for me, thanks

A lot of Jackson’s success is coming because his offensive line is keeping the wolves at bay. Against Purdue, the line (much maligned a year ago) was penalized 11 times for “illegal procedure” penalties. But they didn’t allow a single Boilermaker to lay a wrench on their quarterback. In the victory over North Carolina, the line began building a real pocket for Jackson.

Now comes the biggest test for the big men up front. Clemson has beaten Louisville all three times the teams have played since Louisville joined the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Tigers’ best suit is its defense, and the defense’s best weapon is the “blitz.” The defense shifts its men around in various “schemes” to find seams (holes) in the offensive line. Then it pours marauders through those holes with dead aim on the quarterback. Howling wolves and charging rhinos … look ouuuttt!

Even though it looks like simple brute force, line play is a chess game.

Geron Christian | Courtesy of UofL Athletics

For this match-up, Louisville’s All-ACC tackle Geron Christian, a 6-foot-6, 319-pound junior, says the key is recognizing how Clemson launches its defensive attack — the battle of big men on opposing sides at the line of scrimmage.

“Over the summer we worked on their blitzes,” says Christian. “Like when they see what’s coming from us, what are they going to throw against that? And what are we going to do about it?”

That’s the question Christian believes he and his line mates may be able to solve.

“We’re not going to be surprised about what they do, so we feel like we’ve got the upper hand. It helps us play harder — because we’re not supposed to know what they’re doing. That gives us the opportunity to use our technique. And play fast.”

Even with Christian’s preview, it’ll be almost impossible for most of us to actually see that on the field Saturday. It all goes too fast.

But we’ll know if Louisville’s line is succeeding if Jackson gets time to throw.

Quarterback coach Nick Petrino, the head coach’s son, says Jackson will have to be quick.

“They don’t give you time to stand back in the pocket,” says Nick Petrino. “I don’t want to say too much. We have to get the ball out of Lamar’s hand sooner, and we’re working on that.”

A chess game — with violent collisions and lightning moves.

“When you watch Clemson play, they always have a great defense,” says Bobby Petrino. “They’re very good up front. They’ve got two big, fast defensive tackles. Two really good guys on the edge. We’ve played against two of their three linebackers, who are really fast, and slippery. They play fast and make tackles.”

Of course, Louisville has a slippery fellow of its own.

Insider Experts

For previews of big games, we like to call on out Insider Louisville football experts, Witt Wisman and Jim Knoer. They’re both former players who scout opponents, scout Louisville — and see things most of us miss.

Which brings us to the other half of the game.

If Louisville’s offense vs. Clemson’s defense is the logical focus for Saturday’s showdown, the flip side of that may be important as well. Clemson trying to score on Louisville.

A year ago, quarterback Deshaun Watson led Clemson to its championship. He beat Alabama in the final minute. And he threw for 305 yards in a 42-36 victory over Louisville. Watson graduated and is now in the NFL — replaced by Kelly Bryant, a 6-4, a 220-pound junior.

Clemson QB Kelly Bryant | Courtesy of Clemson Tigers

“Clemson just reloaded at quarterback,” says Wisman. “This guy’s good, too. He’s kind of a mini-Lamar.”

Which means he can run, and pass. But it is Bryant’s passing that most worries Knoer.

“The weakest aspect of Louisville’s game is its defensive secondary,” says Knoer. “They’ll have to find ways to stop the pass somehow. Or at least slow them up.”

UofL’s top pass defender, Jaire Alexander, is expected to miss the game with a knee injury. Other defensive backs have been switched around to cover in Alexander’s absence — but the secondary lacks numbers for a game that will speed up and down the field for 40 minutes.

Which is why running up 40 or more points is paramount for Louisville. And the key to the game, we think.

Knoer thinks Louisville must also show improvement in its “special teams” play. Purdue and North Carolina both broke big plays on kick returns.

But Wisman remains dialed in on the offensive line.

“There’ve been games where it didn’t matter how the line played because Lamar could just cover all that,” says Wisman. “But this isn’t one of those games. The offensive line will have to be there.”

“ESPN College GameDay” visits “The Thinker”

“The Thinker” at UofL | Courtesy of UofL

Meanwhile, the wildly popular “ESPN College GameDay” show is set to air live on the UofL campus from 9 a.m.-noon at Grawemeyer Hall, 2301 Third St. The event is free. The show is set each week on the campus of one of the big national games.

UofL hosted its first “ESPN College GameDay” last season before Louisville’s 63-20 victory over Florida State. Rece Davis hosts the show with a raft of college football analysts, including Kirk Herbstreit and Lee Corso, the former UofL coach 1969-72.

Corso went 28-11-3 in four seasons, leading his 1972 Cardinals to the school’s first AP ranking — 17th in 1972.

Grawemeyer Hall is the centerpiece building on the oval lawn that graces the formal entrance to the university. Brick, with white columns and rotunda. A statue of “The Thinker,” by Auguste Rodin, resides in front of the building, still trying to graduate without reading “Anna Karenina.”

It was Rodin’s first full-sized casting of the statue and was unveiled at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. It was given to the city of Louisville, which placed it at UofL in 1949. The grassy grounds have been the scene of campus events and pep rallies for decades. In 1972, I think, the lawn gained notoriety as a frequent “streaking” site.

The forecast for Saturday is sunny, in the 80s.

Just saying.

This story has been updated.