You can't understate the importance of quarterback play in college football. Saturday's games had plenty of moments where a quarterbacks inability to make plays completely doomed their teams. We also saw a handful of coaches make a switch at quarterback mid-game and see the tone of the game completely change. It is the great unknown: How will this completely untested quarterback perform once the lights come on.
Will Gardner has been in the program for two full seasons, but we really don't know how he will play against a first team defense. He looked great in mop up duty and his play in practice has impressed. But with a new system in place and a different coach teaching fundamentals, Gardner could be a little overwhelmed. I expect Bobby Petrino to utilize his well-known scripted first series to get Gardner immersed into the game. Bobby is an aggressive coach and judging by how he handled his first drive with a new quarterback last year at WKU, I think he will try to push the envelope.
Miami has a different situation with a true freshman starting in his first collegiate game. Brad Kaaya is a highly touted quarterback from California. He seemingly has everything you look for in a prototype quarterback. He's big at 6-4 210, stands tall in the pocket and doesn't look to run, and by all accounts he handles himself like a veteran and not a freshman. Kaaya also has a proven running game to help take some of the pressure off of him. Duke Johnson and his career 6.3 yards per carry will surely help Kaaya get into more manageable passing situations. He has all the talent he needs around him, but it remains to be seen if he can handle the pressure and actually get the ball into the hands of his skill guys.
The amount of big plays in this game could be a major factor. Miami lived on them before Duke Johnson's injury last season, and I think that Offensive Coordinator James Coley will try to get that back immediately. Kaaya has a big arm and a group of receivers that can get behind a defense if given time. Coley didn't have much of an opportunity to get the ball down the field in the bowl game due to the relentless pass rush. If Louisville's defense struggles to get pressure with Todd Grantham's new scheme, Stacy Coley and company could have the opportunity to take the top off of the defense. Johnson himself is also a big home run hitter at running back. He is a menace in the open field and has reportedly shaved some time off of his forty.
Louisville fans have been clamoring in anticipation for Bobby Petrino's high powered offensive scheme since he was hired to take over for defensive minded Charlie Strong. Strong's teams had the talent to light up scoreboards but rarely did much to elicit big plays. Petrino is known for his preparation and ability to exploit defensive weaknesses. Miami's lack of a pass rush last season has to have him licking his chops. Petrino loves to run plays that take time to develop. His patented deep crosses and skinny posts usually come off of five step drops and play action. If the line can keep Will Gardner clean, James Quick, Matt Milton, and Kai De La Cruz should be available outside to make some major plays. The success of the running game will have a major impact on this game. Miami's front seven doesn't have a lot of play makers outside of Denzel Perryman. If they can't stuff the run, Deon Bush will have to support against the run leaving the corners on an island.
Louisville finished last season ranked 28th in special teams efficiency even though hey struggled mightily with kickoff coverage. Petrino has already stated that he will employ the same tactic of keeping the kickoff in the field of play while trying to put the ball between the sideline and the numbers. Charlie Strong employed the same tactic and although Louisville didn't give up a touchdown last season they finished 91st in yards per return. The other areas of special teams were more than sufficient. The punt coverage unit was one of the best in the country and kick returns were in the top half of the country. Louisville must stay sound in the kicking game, especially if this game is close.
Duke Johnson and Stacy Coley have a four combined returns for touchdowns between them. Johnson took two kickoffs back for touchdowns as a true freshman in 2012 while Coley took a kick and a punt back last year. With the importance of Johnson's role on offense I wouldn't be surprised to see Phillip Dorsett replace him on returns. Miami has an abundance of guys that can flat out fly. Freshman Braxton Berrios is a candidate to return punts this year. Berrios is a super quick slot receiver that can create his own seam on returns. Miami can use any free points it can get for Brad Kaaya.
I've stated it above but the pass rush tonight will be a huge factor in this game. Miami's offensive line was made to look like a group of newcomers in the bowl game and James Coley couldn't get his big play offense going. Louisville's line was coming off of one of the most embarrassing performances in years as Teddy Bridgewater ran for his life against Cincinnati. The Hurricanes were barely able to make him move in the bowl game, with the only sack coming on the first offensive play of the game. Teddy carved up the secondary for 447 yards and 35 completions. Will Gardner isn't the talent that Teddy is but he is more than good enough to run Petrino's offense well. If Miami can't put pressure on him he will put points on the board.
The Hurricanes will have two new starters on their offensive line and they make up the right side of the line. The common thought is that most defensive pressure is brought from the blind side of the quarterback. In reality, the best way to attack a young quarterback is to get pressure in his face. The goal of pressure is not always to get sacks. Getting a young quarterback to bring his eyes down into the rush is just as much of a win as bringing him to the ground. If Kaaya is looking into the pressure he's not looking for the potential open target. I think that safety blitzes and other delayed pressure could be big for Louisville in this game. New starters, Danny Isadora and Taylor Gabdois will be tasked with deciphering where the pressure is coming from and keeping Kaaya's sight line clear.