NO. 5 LOUISVILLE CARDINALS (9-1, 7-1) At HOUSTON COUGARS (8-2, 5-2)
Game Time: 8 p.m.
Location: TDECU Stadium: Houston, Texas
Announcers: Dave Fleming (play-by-play), Jesse Palmer (analyst) and Laura Rutledge (reporter)
Favorite: Louisville by 14.5
All-Time Series: Tied 8-8
Last Meeting: Houston won 34-31 last season at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium
Louisville Depth Chart:
Louisville has been on a run of playing teams that really struggle on the offensive side of the ball. Though Houston is not a high-powered by college football standards, they are one of the best offenses Louisville will face this year. The Cougars can do a lot of things that Louisville has struggled with this season and they actually have the skill and speed to take advantage of those things. Tom Herman is coach that a lot of schools will be calling this December and he could use a big win to add some money to whatever contract he signs after the season.
Early this year most people in football saw Lamar Jackson as a Heisman candidate along with Greg Ward. Ward played well against Oklahoma in the season opener and he made some really nice plays against Cincy to start the season with some very impressive numbers. However, as the season went on, Ward's numbers started to slip as he wasn't running the ball as well as he had in the past and he started to have issues protecting the ball. Ward is seemingly always playing hurt so it can be hard to tell when he's having an off game and when he's just banged up. He left last week's game with a right shoulder injury and Vegas doesn't have a line on the game because of it. This could mean that Louisville could be catching a big break playing against a quarterback that could struggle just to throw the ball. Houston's backup broke his arm in the same game so Ward's backup will be true freshman D'Eriq King who has been playing receiver all year.
Ward is completing nearly 70% of his passes this year and his lack of deep accuracy actually helps the offense in my opinion. Houston runs a ton of plays and runs the ball just well enough to get themselves in good position on third downs. They also convert a lot of third downs. Teams have done a good job of controlling the clock a few times this season and Louisville has had to rely on their defense to get some much needed stops as well as the offense taking cre of their end when they have the ball. Houston has the ability to score much easier than a Wake Forest, Duke, or UVA. Those teams protected the ball pretty well and moved the ball down the field with timely first downs and a couple of big plays. A game like that would be perfect for a Houston team that is an "offense-first" type of team.
The running backs for Houston have not been able to replicate the success that Kenneth Farrow had last year in Tom Herman's offense. Duke Catalon is a transfer from Texas who looked pretty solid against Oklahoma in the opener but has been slowed by injuries. Catalon is a big kid who runs through arm tackles pretty well and falls forward at the end of runs. Dillon Birden is the faster of the two running backs and he's a guy that might have enough speed to run horizontal against a Louisville defense that has killed teams that look to get outside. King will also be used on jet sweeps at times and he has some real game breaking ability that is just waiting to be let loose. Houston has options when it comes to running the ball. Not many teams can throw four guys at you that can be deployed in so many different ways. Louisville hasn't been dominant as a run defense consistently, but they have forced a lot more negative plays later in the season and they could put the clamps on a running offense that hasn't been very good this year.
Like the running back group, the Houston receivers have multiple options at their disposal. The very big difference between the groups is that the receivers have been very productive and they can all go for a big game at any given time. Steven Dunbar is third on the team in targets but he went off against Oklahoma in their first game this year. Linell Bonner is the team leader in catches and yards and he is the guy that can really rack up a lot of catches and yards after the catch. Chance Allen is the leader in yards per catch and he has the size and speed to get down the sideline for a big play. He is also a good red zone target who can elevate to catch the ball. Houston will throw a good amount of quick outs and screens like Clemson but they don't really have the dynamic short area players like Clemson does this season. These guys are legit receivers that have made a lot of nice plays this year. Louisville has to make sound tackles and they have to make sure they stay with these guys when Greg Ward extends the play.
The offensive line for the Cougs is the weak point of the offense. Houston has given up a ton of sacks. Some of those sacks are due to Ward trying to extend plays, but far too many times the line has collapsed too quickly and trapped Ward inside. They also haven't done a great job opening holes for the running game. Herman had to plug in three guys that had very little or no experience this year and that included both tackle spots. Louisville has been much better at getting pressure and penetration over the last few games and Houston has been bad at stopping both. Something has to give.
KEY PLAYERS: QB Greg Ward, WR Linell Bonner, WR Steven Dunbar, WR Chance Allen, RG Marcus Oliver
Todd Orlando isn't an unbelievably well known name in college football but he is probably the only reason that Houston hasn't struggled through this season as opposed to being a 2-loss team. Orlando is the defensive coordinator for the Cougars and even though he's had to work through injuries all over his unit, he has the second best run defense in the country and a top 10 defense. Houston lost a handful of key players from last year's defense but Orlando was able to plug in some young talent as well as a few players that had been waiting their turn to contribute. Orlando hasn't lost to UofL as a coordinator, so this week's game could be an opportunity for him to show that he truly has the Cards' number.
One of the young players that Houston has been able to plug in this year is Ed Oliver. Oliver is the best defensive freshman in the country and you could make the argument that he is the best overall freshman as he leads the Cougs in tackles from his defensive tackle position. Oliver is also tied for 6th in the country in tackles for loss per game. Oliver is a generational type of talent that will be a high pick in the draft when he gets to that point. He can play down the line when the play is away from him and he can hold the point of attack and make the tackle when you run at him. Outside of Clemson's linemen, Oliver is by far the best interior lineman Louisville will see this year and I would imagine that Louisville has spent this week scheming to account for him.
Houston runs a 3-4 hybrid defense like a good amount of teams do nowadays and OLB/DE Tyus Bowser is a really good pass rusher off the end when they go to a four-man line. Bowser has missed a handful of games due to ILB Matthew Adams broke his orbital bone during a fight at practice. Even though he's missed those games Bowser still has 6.5 sacks on the year. Nick Thurman and Cameron Malveaux round out the defensive line and they provide good size as well as some nice penetration numbers. Louisville has had some trouble maintaining a pocket for Lamar Jackson and these guys have shown some ability to crash a pocket and get pressure.
The linebacker position for Houston is probably the teams strength from a talent standpoint. Elandon Roberts is playing for the Patriots now but Matthew Adams and Steven Taylorare still around flying all over the field. Adams is more of the "sound" player for the defense but Taylor is a really outstanding player when he's healthy. Taylor ended last season with 18.5 tackles for loss and he's done 8.5 tfls and 6 sacks in 9 games. Taylor is the guy that's most likely to blitz or play downhill on run plays so he is the most dangerous of the four linebackers. Louisville did very well against Marquell Lee in the Wake game last week so they might have some schemes to account for the second level.
Houston had to replace most of the secondary from last season and it has shown in different ways. Houston's run defense is one of the best in the country but they haven't been as great when it comes to defending the pass. Houston is also 66th in turnovers gained this year but they had led the nation in two of the last three seasons in that category. Howard Wilson is one of the new starters this year at corner and he has 5 picks and 8 pbus on the season which are some of the best numbers in the country. The rest of the secondary has really been lacking in both areas. Brandon Wilson has been injured for some of the season but he is a very talented player that can run well and is versatile enough that he played some running back for the Cougars last season. Louisville's offense doesn't typically put receivers down the sideline against man coverage but these corners can run and they have ball skills. On some of the deep post routes they could undercut a poorly thrown ball as Louisville's receivers my have trouble separating from them.
The Houston safeties were all very important in their win last year and all of them are gone now. Khalil Williams and Garrett Davis are both solid players that have more of the size that you would expect at safety as well as the lacking coverage skills. Neither are huge guys, but Houston's safeties were small guys for the last few years and they were all guys that played quick and were plenty good enough to hang with receivers. Williams is a thumper who can come up against the run. He and Davis will be utilized as contain players if Houston uses the same game plan that worked so well for them last year. Todd Orlando pushed his outside safeties up the field in short zone coverages that allowed the to spy Lamar while also being able to cover passing windows. The quickness of the safeties last year made this the perfect system but I'm not sure that Williams and Davis can handle that assignment.
KEY PLAYERS: DT Ed Oliver, DE/OLB Tyus Bowser, ILB Steven Taylor, CB Howard Wilson
Excitement Level: 9.4
This is the first time all season long where my anxiety has outweighed my excitement. Louisville has everything to lose here, and likely won't get as much credit as it should if it wins. That's been the case in previous games against inferior opponents, but a loss in those games has seemed wayyyy more unlikely than it does tonight. These dudes have shown the ability to compete with anybody in the country, and they're putting everything into tonight.
Game Attire: Jeans, white long-sleeved Louisville basketball shirt, grey Louisville hat, new striped U of L socks
I got wayyy too casual the last time I watched a road game from home, and this is the shirt that ended up leading us on the game-winning drive against Virginia. Going with it again here, but won't be afraid to make a switch if need be.
Pregame Meal: Beer, chicken wings/spaghetti
I am too nervous about this one to not drink. I want to get chicken wings, but I'm not sure if I'm going to have enough time, so devouring a plater of leftover spaghetti for a third straight night is a very realistic possibility.
Bold Prediction: Houston attempts three trick plays
No more, no less. The Cougars aren't going to leave a single item in the bag tonight.
Cole Hikutini Touchdown Alert Level: Maximum Blue Purple (extremely high)
The alert level feels very bad about its lack of faith a week ago and now might be overcompensating.
Predicted Star of the Game: Lamar Jackson
Brandon Radcliff probably stole this honor a week ago, but it wasn't definitive enough for me to flip the script in this category for the first time since week two.
Motivational Opposition Tweets:
--Louisville is the only team in the FBS that ranks in the nation's top 10 in both total offense (No. 1) and total defense (No. 6).
--Houston has won 14 consecutive home games, the second-longest active home winning streak in the country. Navy, which defeated the Cougars earlier this season, has the longest streak at 15.
--Houston is unbeaten in home games under Tom Herman (13-0).
--Under Bobby Petrino Louisville is 8-1 in games played less than 7 days after the previous game, including 5-0 in away games.
--Louisville is outscoring its opponents 129-23 in the first quarter of games this season.
--Louisville finished 7-1 in the ACC this season, marking only the third time in school history that the Cards have ended a year with seven or more conference victories.
--This is already the winningest senior class in the history of Houston football, having won 36 games over the past four seasons.
--Under Tom Herman, Houston is 5-0 against top 25 opponents. That record includes a 33-23 win over No. 3 Oklahoma in the opening week of this season.
--Last season's game between Louisville and Houston marked the first career start at quarterback for Lamar Jackson.
--Lamar Jackson is two rushing touchdowns away from breaking the ACC single-season record of 20, set by Georgia Tech's Tevin Washington in 2012.
--A victory over Louisville Thursday night would make the Houston the only team in the country to have defeated two top five teams this season.
--Houston's Greg Ward Jr. and Louisville's Lamar Jackson are the only two players nationally to average over 285 yards passing and over 40 yards rushing.
--Ward is ninth nationally in total offense (337.4 yards per game) and is 17th nationally in passing (289.8 yards) while rushing for 47.7 yards per game.
--Jackson leads the nation with 278 points responsible for — accounting for 45 (19 rushing and 27 passing) touchdowns and a two-point conversion. He also leads the country with an average of 27.8 points per game.
--Louisville has allowed just three rushing touchdowns this season, tied with Alabama, Ohio State and Michigan for the fewest in the country.
--Houston ranks third in the nation in rushing defense (92.8 yards per game) while ranking ninth in total defense (303.3 yards per game).
--Louisville is 24-8 in road games since 2011, and 4-1 this season.
--Even with an up-tempo offense, Houston ranks ninth nationally in time of possession with an average TOP of 33:36 per game.
--With one more rushing touchdown, Lamar Jackson will become the fourth player from a Power 5 school with 20 passing and 20 rushing touchdowns in a season. The previous three -- Tim Tebow, Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel -- all won the Heisman Trophy.
--Houston owns the longest winning streak by a non-power 5 team against power 5 opponents with five consecutive wins over the last three seasons. Houston now owns wins over Oklahoma, Florida State, Vanderbilt, Louisville and Pitt in its last five power 5 matchups. The Cougars will look to extend their streak to six vs. Louisville.
--Louisville is 37-3 over the last four seasons when attempting at least 35 rushes in a game. The only three losses came this season at Clemson, in 2014 at Clemson, and in the 2015 season-opener against Auburn.
--Louisville is 34-4 under Bobby Petrino when winning the turnover battle. The Cardinals have lost the turnover battle in five of their 10 games this season, but have gone 5-0 in those games.
--Houston's streak of five consecutive wins over top 25 opponents is the second-longest in the country, trailing only Alabama (13).
--Louisville has won 15 consecutive games when kicking off to begin the game, but has received to start nine of its 10 games this season. The lone exception came in the Cards' 32-25 win at Virginia.
--Louisville is 6-4 all-time in games played on Nov. 17. The Cards' last appearance on the date was a 55-17 loss to South Florida in 2007.
--Under Bobby Petrino, Louisville is 20-4 in the month of November.
--Louisville is currently riding a consecutive game scoring streak that spans 209 games dating back to the 2000 season. The streak ranks as the third longest in the ACC behind only Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech.
--Louisville is 176-10 all-time when scoring 35 or more points in a game. The Cards are also 5-102 all-time when allowing opponents to score 40 or more points.
--"There is extra anticipation and extra excitement knowing who's coming into town. There is no hiding from that. But at the same time, it's business as usual. The way we prepare is not going to change." --Houston coach Tom Herman
--"This is our Super Bowl." --Houston wide receiver Chance Allen
--"We feel every team plays us as if it was their Super Bowl, so it's nothing. We've just got to go out there and execute." --Jaire Alexander
--"We had a good week of preparation. It was short, but it was a good week of preparation. I think our guys are fired up about it. We probably have a little bit of a chip on our shoulder, and we're excited to get out and play." --Bobby Petrino
--"It's like playing Oklahoma again. There's going to be a lot of energy. We're going to come out attacking." --Houston linebacker Steven Taylor
--"We have a chip on our shoulder trying to prove to everybody that we've got a defense and not just an offense. We've got some boys up front, some dogs. Any one of them could go to any school in the nation." --Houston defensive back Howard Wilson
--"Our coaches say our biggest game is always the next game. With Houston having a fast-paced offense and a dual-threat quarterback, it's going to be a challenge, especially going into their environment. We have to play our football, stick to the game plan, play fast, smart, physical and let the chips fall where they may." --Jaire Alexander
--"They're ranked (fifth) in the country for a reason. They have arguably the best player in college football." --Houston linebacker Tyus Bowser
--"I want to make sure we all understand what's out there. Our players feel like we should be in. Our coaches feel like we should be in it, but the fact of the matter is that we're not. The only thing we can do is play well and perform well and put on a show on national TV, and we're provided that opportunity tonight, so we're really excited and motivated tonight." --Bobby Petrino
--"We've done pretty well in big games around here the last couple of years." --Houston head coach Tom Herman
--"We're a much different team than we were last year (against Houston). Right then we were trying to even find out who we were and what we were doing and everything was new to Lamar when he was out there. He made some really good plays in the game and made some mistakes in understanding the difference in high school football and college football." --Bobby Petrino
--"Somebody in that building, whether it's coach Petrino or [a position coach], they've changed (Lamar Jackson). He can see the field, he can see coverages now, he makes reads, he's very poised, he knows when to extend plays and when to throw the ball away. He's a completely different player. He has improved tenfold, in my opinion." --Houston defensive coordinator Todd Orlando
--"The season hasn't gone as planned and as we thought it should, but we've have this week to look forward to." Houston wide receiver Chance Allen
--"We're real confident. We're 5-0 against top ranked teams, so we're not really worried." --Houston cornerback Brandon Wilson