A couple of days removed from the Cardinals 20-13 win on the road at NC State and a few chances to watch the game again later, it's even more impressive and important as it seemed when we took the air to do the postgame show on 939 The Ville as the game went final. In sloppy weather conditions, on the road, against a team playing swelling confidence, desperate to show that its winning streak dating back to last year and its 4-0 start this year aren't just products of the schedule, starting a true freshman quarterback, and they still come away with a 20-13 win. A win that gives them something to feel good about with two weeks to get ready for Florida State on the road.
More than anything else, the win avoided the ceiling for the 2015 season being lowered significantly. Had they lost and were 1-4 headed to Florida State, it's hard to imagine anything other than just eeking out a bowl game as a way to maybe salvage the season. Now, at 2-3 and Florida State looking at least human in comparison to last season, an eight win season is still possible. At 1-4 it would've been impossible to dream "upward". Instead, the 1-3 start wouldn't have been able to be dismissed as at least partly being due to the tough schedule and two weeks of sitting in the negativity of that loss would've made it that much harder to salvage anything out of the last seven games.
The Youth Movement
It's hard to overstate just how young Louisville is right now, especially on offense. Louisville ran 72 plays on Saturday and at no time did they have fewer than six freshmen or redshirt freshmen on the field. As has been pointed out several times, a senior hasn't registered a single passing or receiving yard in 2015. To illustrate the youth, here's the personnel on the field for the 63 yard Lamar Jackson touchdown run (note: not pictured is true freshman receiver Jaylen Smith).
One reason we haven't seen the typical "Bobby bump" in offensive production from year one to year two is this is effectively a second year one on offense. No team is consistent and effective playing this many freshmen. This explains the occasional penalty or missed assignment or any of the other things we've seen hamper drives. Nevertheless, it's hard not to be optimistic about such an extremely young group producing in a win on the road in conference.
Offensive line play
The offensive line's struggles in the first month of the season are well documented. The deeper we've moved into the season, however, younger (and better) players have moved into the lineup and it has steadied the line. Lukayus McNeil has played very well at guard next to Geron Christian. After alternating between Aaron Epps and Kelby Johnson, promising freshman Kenny Thomas took over at the weak tackle spot and it would be a major upset if he gives that job up.
To illustrate, this comfortable, open area in front of Lamar Jackson is called a "pocket". It's been rare for any Louisville quarterback to have one this season.
A final note on the offensive line. Nobody has been a more harsh critic of Tobijah Hughley at center than me. So I would be remiss to not recognize his improvement. Hughley steadies the inside of the line, he's better with better guards around him, and he's the team's best option at center. In the picture above that's Hughley stoning a blitzing linebacker.
Lamar Jackson is a quarterback
That subheading is a jab at my very good friend Raashaan Myers. At NC State, Jackson did all of the things we're used to seeing him do like evade pass rushers, pick up huge chunks of yardage on designed runs, and heave the ball down the field (CATCH IT JAMES QUICK). But he also did more of what he'll need to do for Louisville to beat good teams in the games and years to come: stand in the pocket, scan, and make a good decision where to throw the ball. It's not a play that they'll put in the college football hall of fame, but here's Jackson working across the field from his left to right very quickly to find James Quick for a first down.
Is Jackson a finished product? Obviously not. He struggled mightily in the second half. But there are going to be growing pains from game to game and within games with a freshman playing in his first ever college road game.
Perhaps the most encouraging thing about this game is that it seemed Petrino and McGee have found a comfort level in designing a gameplan and calling plays for Lamar Jackson as the quarterback going forward. Against Houston the gameplan seemed something of a mess and they tried to figure out what a makeshift offensive line could handle and what Jackson could do comfortably and well. None of that seemed to be an issue against NC State.
Optimism about the remaining seven games
Football Study Hall has individual team profiles. Here's a link with the advanced statistics breakdown for Louisville. Of note: Louisville is ranked the #13 team in the country based on its overall body of work for the season (all of these statistics are adjusted for opponent, btw). Also worth noting is the win probability for the remaining seven games on the Louisville schedule.
|Date||Opponent||Opp. S&P+ Rk||Win
|17-Oct||at Florida State||8||29%||L||-9.7||19.8 - 29.5||2.29|
|24-Oct||Boston College||18||62%||W||5.1||20.9 - 15.8||2.90|
|30-Oct||at Wake Forest||76||78%||W||13.6||33.0 - 19.5||3.69|
|7-Nov||Syracuse||49||78%||W||13.2||31.8 - 18.6||4.46|
|14-Nov||Virginia||82||91%||W||22.8||40.2 - 17.4||5.37|
|21-Nov||at Pittsburgh||45||62%||W||5.2||26.0 - 20.8||5.99|
|28-Nov||at Kentucky||89||85%||W||18.3||35.5 - 17.2||6.84|
Using their metrics to project the probability of winning, Louisville is in good shape to finish 8-4 despite the 0-3 start. If this team, with all of the turnover, were to finish 8-4, 6-2 in the ACC, and end the regular season with a win over Kentucky, it would have to be considered a success with quite a bit of momentum heading into 2016.