LOUISVILLE CARDINALS (0-1) vs. HOUSTON COUGARS (1-0)
Game Time: Noon
Location: Papa John's Cardinal Stadium: Louisville, Ky.
Television: Fox Sports South/ESPN3
Announcers: Tom Werme (play-by-play), Ovie Mughelli (analyst) and Niki Noto (sideline)
Favorite: Louisville by 13.5
All-Time Series: Louisville leads, 8-7
Last Meeting: Louisville won 20-13 on Nov. 16, 2013 at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium
Schedule of Events:
If fans were impressed by Lamar Jackson's open field running and improvisation last week they should prepare themselves to see similar things from Greg Ward. Ward is a former wide receiver that took over the starting quarterback spot halfway through last season. Ward has limitations as a quarterback as he is only 5-11 but he makes up for that by being a great open field runner as well as a very solid passer. It also helps that Houston's offense is built around short, quick passes that open up deep ball opportunities. Ward completed nearly 70% of his passes last year which shows that he is much more than an athlete that happens to play quarterback. Ward is a type of athlete that Louisville hasn't faced in a while. I would expect Todd Grantham to focus mostly on not letting Ward run. He might do that by having his ends and outside linebackers rush deeper upfield in hopes that it will keep Ward in the pocket or at least running into the middle of the field.
Houston's "traditional" running game really struggled against Tennessee Tech last week. Ward had some big runs on scrambles and Demarcus Ayers had a couple of nice runs on wide receiver speed sweeps. However, the running back duo of Kenneth Farrow andRyan Jackson never got going and never really had much room to work with. Farrow is the starter and he is known as more of the power back of the two while Jackson is a former sprinter that has added bulk to help himself become more of a complete back. Farrow doesn't really do much to impress but he's been the "guy" for Houston for a few years now. He won't outrun anyone. He won't make many guys miss. And, to be honest, the "power back" label has more to do with Jackson being the "speed" guy than anything else. Louisville has given up 100 yards to an opposing running back 5 of the last 7 games but I don't think that will be the case this week.
Louisville lost a lot of talent at wide receiver this offseason but Houston could have an argument that they lost more. Demarcus Ayers and Steven Dunbar are the only returners from last year and unlike Louisville, Herman was trying to replace their talent in a shorten recruiting period after starting in January. That did lead to one positive which is Chance Allen transferring back home to Texas from Oregon. Allen is 6-3 and 215 pounds and he can run very well. Allen was granted a waiver to play this year even though he played in 5 games for Oregon last year. The luxury of not having to take a year off might be helpful for him. Ayers is the focus of the offense as of now, though. He finished the game last week with 10 catches and 190 all purpose yards (Would've been 275 if a bad holding call didn't bring back an 85 yard punt return TD). Ayers lines up in the slot and he runs everything from crossing routes to bubble screens and speed sweeps. Houston is still looking for other guys to step up and one guy to look out for is Steven Dunbar who is also 6-3 and 210 pounds. The size and speed of the three starters is something that could help Houston's offense create some big plays as Auburn had some success getting the ball to some of their bigger receivers.
The question mark for Houston's offense is the play of their offensive line. Herman's offense moves the pocket and also asks the offensive linemen to cover a lot of ground when run blocking. The system needs linemen that fit it and based on their showing against Tennessee Tech, I would say that when it comes to run blocking they're not the perfect fits. When Ryan Jackson ran stretch plays he found himself with no lane to run through because the linemen were chasing the play instead of leading the way. Farrow repeatedly ran into a backside linebacker or had a defensive end free to make a tackle after a few yards because blockers didn't stay engaged. The pass blocking from the line was fine. Ward took a couple of sacks he shouldn't have but he wasn't rushed at all and he had huge windows to throw through. Louisville's run defense was run over at times by Auburn and they're offensive line. I think Houston has some issues to fix before they could do the same.
KEY PLAYERS: QB Greg Ward, WR Demarcus Ayers, WR Chance Allen, RB Ryan Jackson
Houston runs a 3-3-5 and they never leave that set. The defense of David Gibbs is gone to Texas Tech, but the base set is still the same and some of the things they do are similar. The line is led by three big bodies that do a great job of holding up blockers and forcing as much as possible outside. The group doesn't make a lot of tackles but they do a fairly good job of what they are truly assigned to do. Louisville's interior linemen had a very forgettable day against Auburn but this is a game where they might be able to gain some confidence.
Houston's linebackers can run extremely well. That doesn't mean they're just fast but they also know how to run with angles and purpose. It's what stands out about James Burgess and Keith Kelsey and Elandon Roberts and Steven Taylor are no different. Taylor gets after the quarterback more as the Will linebacker in the defense while Robers is the middle linebacker who does a really good job of chasing down plays. The third linebacker is the Sam backer Tyus Bowser who lines up on the line of scrimmage like a "buck" or "leo" linebacker (Carl Lawson was at this spot for Auburn last week). Bowser is another guy that runs well for his size and looked really athletic on a nice sack he had last week.
The strength of Houston's defense is their veteran secondary. How veteran? Three of the five starters this weekend started in the game against Louisville in 2013. William Jackson, Trevon Stewart, and Adrian McDonald helped lead a defense in 2013 that forced an absolutely insane amount of turnovers. They now play more aggressive as opposed to being opportunistic like they were before. They play a little more press coverage and they bring pressure from different angles which puts more pressure on the secondary. That new philosophy didn't work out too well last week as the secondary blew three coverages and allowed an FCS receiver to get loose for 264 yards and two touchdowns. But outside of the blown plays the secondary looked like the true strength of the defense and I think that will allow Todd Orlando to be a little risky and try to confuse Lamar Jackson.
KEY PLAYERS: OLB Steven Taylor, ILB Elandon Roberts, FS Trevon Stewart, SS Adrian McDonald, CB William Jackson
Excitement Level: 8.3
It's the home opener, but there are too many nerves here for the excitement meter to be above 8.5. Need this win so that we can get back above a 9 for Clemson on Thursday.
Pregame Meal: Assorted breakfast food, beer, mimosas
No particulars on breakfast food just yet, but some form of hashbrowns as well as pastries and Chick-fil-A minis are a safe bet. There will also be drinking.
Game Attire: Jeans, red U of L polo, new grey and red old English L Louisville hat.
Clearly going with the trustee red Titleist hat backfired last week. May also need a jacket for the early morning. Going to be a bit nipply.
Bold Prediction: Kyle Bolin plays and throws a touchdown pass
Bounced back from last year's 0-for-13 performance in a big way last week. I hereby dub thee, "The Year of the Bold Prediction."
Predicted Star of the Game: Brandon Radcliff
All the attention heaped upon Lamar Jackson continues to be good for Louisville's lead back, who goes off in a big way.
Cole Hikutini Touchdown Alert Level: Sea Green (dealing with an injury, so not likely)
We're going back to our roots and the vaunted No. 18 jersey with our new alert level feature.
Motivational Opposition Tweet:
--Louisville is 13-4 in home openers at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, and has won its last four.
--Bobby Petrino is 5-0 lifetime with the Cardinals in home openers.
--A Houston victory would make first-year head coach Tom Herman just the third coach in UH history to start a career 2-0, joining Bill Yeoman (1962) & John Jenkins (1990)
--Louisville is 21-16 all-time in noon games, but 8-0 under the direction of Bobby Petrino.
--Louisville has not won all of its home games since the 2006 season.
--Houston defensive coordinator Todd Orlando was the defensive coordinator at Florida International when the Panthers stunned Louisville at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium in the second game of the 2011 season.
--Petrino is 2-0 against Houston while at Louisville, winning 66-45 in 2003 and 65-27 a year later.
--Louisville has won seven straight non-conference home games, a streak which dates back to 2011.
--Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr. ranked ninth nationally in completion percentage in 2014, completing 67.3 percent of his passes, or 177-of-263 attempts.
--Louisville is 19-2 in regular season non-conference games under the direction of Bobby Petrino.
--The Cards are 10-0 in non-conference home games under Petrino.
--Houston is 10-0-1 against the spread in its last 11 road games. The Cougars come to PJCS at 13.5-point underdogs.
--Houston's backfield features the AAC's top combo in seniors Kenneth Farrow and Ryan Jackson. Last season the duo helped Houston to its most rushing yards (2,391) since 2007 when the Cougars rushed for 2,911 yards. The two combined for nine 100-yard games in 2014, four more than any other team in The American. The two helped Houston to 399 yards on the ground vs. UNLV, as UH fell just one yard short of its first 400-yard rushing game since 1985.
--Louisville has not started a season 0-2 since 1998.
--Dating back to 2013, Louisville has forced at least one turnover in 17 consecutive games.
--Over the last two seasons, no program has taken the ball away from opposing offenses more than Houston with 73 turnovers forced. The 2013 Houston defense led the nation with 43 forced turnovers - 18 fumbles (NCAA best) and 25 interceptions (second nationally). The 2014 edition ranked 11th nationally with 30 turnovers and eighth nationally with 19 interceptions.
--Louisville is 22-2 over the last three seasons when attempting at least 35 rushes in a game. The lone two losses came last year at Clemson, and last week against Auburn.
--Louisville is currently riding a consecutive game scoring streak that spans 187 games dating back to the 2000 season. The streak ranks as the third longest in the ACC behind Virginia Tech (258) and Georgia Tech (225).
--Dating back to 1980, Louisville is 150-16 when scoring 30 or more points in a game. The Cards are also 5-100 all-time when allowing opponents to score 40 or more points.
--"This game is for national relevance. The nation is watching." --Houston head coach Tom Herman
--"Houston's a good football team. They've got some speed on offense. They've got speed on defense. Their linebackers can really run, and they've got a lot of experience. So it's going to be a great challenge for us." --Bobby Petrino
--"We have to get this win. Or our goals at the end of the season are going to be far off. We're going to be playing catchup for the rest of the season." --Houston LB Matthew Adams
--"(Greg Ward Jr.) is a very dynamic player. He's very shifty in space. If you don't contain him, he can get loose on you. We have to have a very good game plan against him and keep him contained and make him throw the ball instead of run the ball." --Keith Brown
--"I'm not trying to add any pressure to the game. I just wanted to get that out in the open at the beginning of the week. If we want to be mentioned in that same conversation, we have to go do our job on the road against a really good ACC football team." --Houston coach Tom Herman
--"I'm very excited. They're an ACC team, and we're just ready to go out there and show everybody what we've been doing and play our best against a team like that." --Houston QB Greg Ward Jr.
--"Houston is sound in what they do. They understand their system. We understand that we have to play well." --Todd Grantham
--"We've been to Louisville before and came away with a close game. The older guys know the magnitude of going up there and beating a team like this." --Houston RB Kenneth Farrow
--"It's a huge test. Not just (because of) the personnel and the quality of talent that they have on all sides of the football — their coaching staff is fantastic as well — but to go on the road in an (Atlantic Coast Conference) environment. We have to go out there and execute how we were trained to execute." --Houston coach Tom Herman
Card Chronicle Prediction: Louisville 37, Houston 24
We've got a lot of newcomers who are about to play in front of their home fans for the first time. Let's make sure that first impression is a positive one.