“They’ve been to the national championship game; they’ve got the ring on their finger,” says Louisville coach Bobby Petrino. “We knew if we’re going to make a run in this conference, to get to the goal that we want, we had to find a way to beat them.”
On Saturday, Sept. 17, Louisville may get its best chance yet. Tenth-ranked Louisville (2-0) hosts Florida State (2-0) in a nationally televised (noon, ABC) Atlantic Coast Conference game at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. ESPN’s “College GameDay” will film live from the stadium, beginning at 9 a.m., further focusing national attention on the contest. It’s the first time Louisville has been picked for the traveling “College GameDay” show, which each week originates from the campus of the top college game.
That’s a lot of fun for fans, and kind of a status symbol — but on the field, a victory over Florida State could mean everything to Louisville in its continuing quest to rise from “rising power” to top-rung contender. For three-time national champion Florida State, it’s another football Saturday at the office. But it’s a serious office. Big games are Florida State’s business.
But Louisville brings more than aspiration. The Cardinals are powered by high-voltage quarterback Lamar Jackson, who passes like lightning and runs even faster. To go with its sophomore sensation, Louisville boasts a fast lineup of veteran players who can run all the plays — and make them click. After two games of the 2016 season, Louisville leads the nation in yards gained per game, averaging 754 yards of passing and running, and in scoring, at 66 points per game.
Florida State? Well the Seminoles’ numbers are not quite so gaudy, but a 2-0 record includes a strong second-half rally against a sturdy opening game opponent, Mississippi, and a big stats romp past Charleston Southern. So it is no problem for Associated Press pollsters to find things running along about as usual and stamp Florida State No. 2 in the country. Behind defending national champion Alabama.
The Seminoles always seem to be big, fast and stocked with the kind of athletes who graduate to professional football — and play tough late in games. Two years ago, Florida State powered 80 yards in 66 seconds to beat Auburn at the wire in the national title playoff game. In each of the past two seasons, Florida State has rallied in the second half to turn back Louisville.
Over the years, Florida State is 14-2 against Louisville. One of those Louisville wins came in the schools’ first meeting, posted by Louisville coach Frank Camp: a 41-14 triumph in Tallahassee in 1952. Half a century later, the other UofL victory came in the famous (at least in Louisville) 2002 rain game — a 26-20 overtime victory over Florida State played in a leftover hurricane rainstorm at Cardinal Stadium. Other than that, no dice.
So that’s the tradition. You could place Florida State with Alabama, and add Ohio State, and say that’s the top three of college football today. But, as noted, Florida State — which plays with Louisville in the ACC’s Atlantic Division — is the only one of those Louisville plays regularly.
So everybody knows what this game means to Louisville.
Including Petrino, who lives for this kind of marquee match-up — and seems pretty confident he’s bringing more than a slingshot to a battle with Goliath.
“It’s a great match-up, certainly something we look forward to,” says Petrino. “We’ve worked very hard to get to this point. Now we’ve got to put everything we have into preparing like we always do.”
Coach speak, yes. But there’s a song in there somewhere with an 8-to-5 marching beat.
“Our guys go out there and take the field and expect to score,” Petrino says. “We do know this is going to be a much better defense. They’re very strong in the front, very good in the secondary. I think it’s exacting for us to step up to this challenge and go out there and maintain our expectations.”
But no magic with mirrors.
“One of the things I believe we don’t have to do is something extraordinary to win the game,” says Petrino. “We’ve just got to play good, solid Louisville Cardinal football.”
Just so over the top
Which does not mean running off tackle for three yards and a cloud of dust. Quarterback Jackson tossed a 73-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the game last Friday night at Syracuse. The Cardinals scored three touchdowns on its first five plays, en route to a 62-28 victory. The week previous, Louisville ran up 56 points in the first half against overmatched University of North Carolina-Charlotte.
And even when Louisville runs, it goes to the air.
By now, most fans have seen replays of Jackson hurdling a would-be Syracuse tackler to score a touchdown. Jackson said it was spontaneous. The Syracuse tackler had him lined up perfectly and dived low. So he had to leap over him.
Louisville wide receiver Jamari Staples was right there, and is still tickled when he thinks about Jackson’s over-the-top play.
“I was blocking, and out of the corner of my eye I saw him lift — just take off!” says Staples. “I was, like, ‘WHOA!’ I hit the other guy that was about to tackle him, and Lamar put his feet in the end zone. It was amazing.”
But not that far out for Jackson.
“In our offense, blocking is the main thing,” says Staples. “So downfield it’s just having the right placement on your defender. With a person like Lamar, as dynamic as he is, it’s hard to know exactly where he is on the field. So you stay in front of your man, holding him — and all of a sudden you see that ‘8’ (Jackson) go right by you.”
Amazing? Better believe it, says Louisville linebacker Keith Kelsey.
“I saw it,” says Kelsey. “I actually couldn’t believe it …”
But he could.
“Lamar’s a great player, we see it every day in practice — we see stuff,” says the senior linebacker. “He runs like that every day, running around.”
Jumping over tacklers?
“He’s not going to do that in practice,” laughs Kelsey. “For one, you can’t get close to him. And we don’t need anybody hurdling anybody. Save that for the game.”
Ah, the game. This game. And what could it do for Louisville?
“Does a lot,” says Kelsey. “Florida State is a great team. This city has been looking for a big game like this. They’re going to be on our side, to do as much as they can to help us beat No. 2. I expect it to be rockin’. I expect the fans to be excited. The stadium is going to be shaking. The whole atmosphere is going to just be crazy.”
Corso back on campus
The “College GameDay” broadcast airs from 9-11 a.m. from the lawn in front of the Howard Schnellenberger Football Complex at the northeast end of the stadium. For the final hour, the show will broadcast from inside the stadium.
Rece Davis is the host of “College GameDay,” with a colorful cast that includes Kirk Herbstreit and Lee Corso. The broadcast will be a homecoming for Corso, a popular past Louisville coach, who was 28-11-3 in four years from 1969-72. Corso won two Missouri Valley championships, and his ’72 team finished 9-1, cracking the AP Top 25 (No. 18 final poll) for the first time in school history. Several players from that ’72 team advanced to professional football, including All-Pro linebacker Tom Jackson.
Corso also is a Florida State graduate. One of the better trivia notes is Corso was a football teammate with actor Burt Reynolds at Florida State. One might say it’s about a tossup which of the two is more naturally charming and funny.
The word from Insider experts
Now, for the analysis.
For big games, we like to step away from the careful comments of coaches and players for a more unvarnished take on what will happen, and why — calling here on our Insider Louisville football experts.
First up, Witt Wisman, a former Georgia Tech linebacker, who looks at games from a coaching point of view. Wisman sees one big problem for Petrino, the offensive mastermind, and another big problem for Todd Grantham, the UofL defensive coordinator. And those big problems have numbers: 4 and 44.
“First, Grantham has to figure out how to stop No. 4,” says Wisman of Florida State All-American candidate running back Dalvin Cook. “He can break tackles and he’s really fast. He can get away and be gone on any play.”
“Then,” says Wisman, “Petrino has to figure out what he’s going to do about 44.”
That’s the defensive end, DeMarcus Walker?
“That’s him, 44 — but he’s not just an end,” says Wisman. “He’s a linebacker. He’s a pass rusher. He’s a safety. He plays everything, does anything — and lines up wherever he wants.”
Look out, Lamar!
Meanwhile, Jim Knoer, a former Georgetown College lineman, begins his analysis in the trenches.
“The Louisville offensive line, you can see it’s still young,” says Knoer. “Last year they had a hard time run blocking when the defense played games. Like slants, looping moves and so on. You’d see them still working on the x’s and o’s during the games on the sidelines. The last time we lost to Florida State, the line couldn’t adjust in the second half. Then Cook took over and we lost.”
But there’s promise, says Knoer. “The offensive linemen are still the youngest players on the team, but they’re learning. On the line you get better slowly, steadily — and then you’ve got it.”
So it will be a test, not likely decided until the late rounds.
“I think we’ll score, especially in the first half,” says Knoer. “But so will they. Being able to take a punch and come back with our own score will be the key.”