Game 2 Preview: Louisville

A week after a rousing victory over Tennessee Tech, 52-24 in head coach Tom Herman’s debut, the competition amps up as your Houston Cougars travel to the home of the Kentucky Derby for a showdown against the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Louisville Cardinals in a key early season non-conference matchup. Game time at Papa John’s Cardinals Stadium is set for 11AM (CST) and will be broadcast by the ACC Regional Sports Network (check your local listings for channels in your viewing area).

The Cardinals are coached by Bobby Petrino, who is 50-14 in two separate stints as their head coach. He was hired last season after a failed tenure with the National Football League’s Atlanta Falcons and led Louisville to a 9-4 record. They ended last season losing to Georgia in the Belk Bowl so his team’s not going to be very happy come game time against the Coogs with his team having lost two straight to SEC foes, after losing to Auburn 31-24 at the Georgia Dome this past Saturday. During his first stint with the Cards, Petrino brought Louisville to national relevancy, leading them to 41 wins in 50 games from 2003 through 2006 including a 12-1 season capped off with an Orange Bowl victory, finishing the season 5th nationally in the Associated Press poll. Petrino is 92-35 overall as a head coach entering his 12th season. While the overall series matchup is close, with Louisville holding a meager 8-7 edge, Petrino is 2-0 against the home town team having scored more than 60 points in both victories.

These aren’t your Grandma’s Bobby Petrino coached teams

Petrino “cut his coaching teeth” on the offensive side of the football, having played quarterback for his father, Bob Sr., who coached Carroll College (in Helena, Montana) for 26 years, winning 163 games and 15 conference championships.

 According to his bio on the Louisville football website, as a head coach, Petrino helped develop quarterbacks such as Ryan Mallett (2008-10) at Arkansas and Stefan LeFors (2003-04) and Brian Brohm (2004-06) at Louisville. As a coordinator or assistant, he tutored Jason Campbell at Auburn (2002), Chris Redman at Louisville (1998), Jake Plummer at Arizona State (1993), and Doug Nussmeier (1990-91) and John Friesz (1989) at Idaho. In his five seasons plus back in Louisville, his teams haven’t averaged less than 34 points per game for a season.

Also taken from his bio, “while his track record is proven developing quarterbacks, Petrino has also adhered to the philosophy of a balanced attack offensively. In his last 14 years as a collegiate coach, both as a head coach and as an offensive coordinator, Petrino's offenses have put together 86 100-yard rushers and 64 300-yard passers in 170 games during that 14-year span.”

While Petrino may have a high powered offense by season’s end, it appears he’ll take a different route to get there with the current offense as true freshman Lamar Jackson (6-foot-3 inches, 196 pounds) looks to be the team’s newly minted starter. The dual threat Pompano Beach, Florida product has been supposedly timed under 4.4 seconds in the 40-meter dash while tossing 20 touchdowns and running for 19 more during his senior season. Gary Danielson, color analyst for CBS, commented how Jackson reminded him of former Atlanta Falcons QB Michael Vick in that he not only is a superior athlete to just about everyone on the field in terms of running the ball, but also has a “live arm” and can seamlessly throw the ball downfield with just a “flick of the wrist.” Jackson played sparingly early on in their loss to Auburn, including tossing an ill-advised pass into coverage that turned into an interception on the game’s first play, but he started the second half leading the Cards to TDs on their final 3 possessions as his legs breathed life into a stale offense, as he became the first Louisville QB in over 41 years to rush for over 100 yards (106 to be exact). Passing wise, he completed only 9-of-20 passes for 100 yards with a QBR rating of 57.4. Jackson appears to be the man now after rallying his unit, something Reggie Bonnafon (6’3, 209, So.) could not do in the first half as he completed 8-of-13 passes but for only 67 yards for a meager 19.8 QBR. The two aforementioned were in a QB battle over training camp with Will Gardner (6’5, 220, Jr), who started 7 games last season and passed for over 1,600 yards with 12 TDs to only 3 interceptions and is more the drop back passer Petrino is use to working with. Kyle Bolin (6’2, 208, So.) started the final game against Georgia in the Belk Bowl and passed for 300 yards against the Bulldawgs and is fourth on the depth chart.

The “cat-and-mouse” game between Petrino, who calls the plays though Garrick McGee is the offensive coordinator and QB coach, and Coogs defensive coordinator Todd Orlando will be something to watch Saturday afternoon. Orlando has to be concerned about the play of his secondary, which allowed 312 yards passing against an overmatched Tennessee Tech squad, with three coming on broken assignments as two completions turned into 71 and 77 yard scores after a 45 yarder was allowed earlier in the game. Herman touched on this during his weekly media press conference Monday morning (via, “That’s something that we have to correct in a hurry. Don’t worry about other peoples’ jobs. Don’t try to do too much and don’t try to overthink it. Just do your assignment, and the structure of the defense will handle anything and everything as long as everyone is doing their job.” Via the Houston Chronicle, safeties coach Craig Naivar could have been talking about Trevon Stewart when he said, “When you try and go stop a leak somewhere else that it’s not your job to go stop, then you leave your deal if something pops nobody is there to fix it. Some of those guys (think) the best chance to tackle them ‘was me.’”

Playing their assignments will be key against a spread, up-tempo offense as Petrino is a master at in-game adjustments; especially taking advantage of aggressive secondaries, which the Coogs have been in years past and continue to look under Orlando. If a player such as Stewart, or fellow safety Adrian McDonald, gets caught with their eyes wandering in the backfield, look for Petrino to dial up a play-action bomb over their head for a score. Unfortunately you have to take the good with the bad when speaking of the Coogs secondary as it’s their aggressive nature that leads the senior play makers to the ball in the first place. Coogfans will just hope this doesn’t burn them come game time. Petrino will also line his QBs under center in short yardage situations and will use the read-option, speed option and will roll his QBs out to give them a run-pass option once they get out on the edge. He also gives his signal callers some decision making ability as they call which side of the offense to run the play on (strong or weak) based on the alignment of the defense. Louisville’s offense is a “check with me” scheme in which the players will get signals from the sidelines via large place cards, hurry to the line of scrimmage before Petrino gives the final say whether the play will remain the same or be changed based on what he and his coaches see from the defense.

Ultimately, this game will come down to what it always does; who controls the line of scrimmage. Both teams have dynamic dual threat QBs that help out the inside run games. The team which best instills their will on the opponent will win. Herman also touched on this during his presser, “We have to run the ball, and we have to stop the run on the road. When you are running the ball efficiently and stopping the run effectively, you are taking life out of the stadium a little bit. Those are two big points of emphasis. We have to run the football, and we have to stop the football. The mentality is that there is going to be adversity and there are going to be momentum shifts. There is going to be crowd noise and a lot of things in their favor, but we have got to make conscious decisions on every snap, even on the sideline, to push all of that outside of our minds and focus on the task at hand and do our job. It doesn’t matter if we are playing at Lambeau Field against the Green Bay Packers or if we are playing in the parking lot against Yates Middle School or whatever the case may be, we have a job to do and that job doesn’t change based on who we are playing or where we are playing them.”

While the Cardinals offense is “multiple,” meaning they line up in different sets; some with 3 wide receivers, some with 2 running backs with one motioning out of the backfield, it’s all just “eye candy” to confuse the defense with what they want to do, IE “cram the ball down your throat” as Herman put it so eloquently. Louisville employs a running back by committee approach with Brandon Radcliff (5’9, 214, R-Jr.) being the key. The redshirt junior runs with authority between the tackles but has a surprising burst to get around the edge as well, leading the team in rushing last season with 737 yards (while averaging 5.1 yards per carry) and 12 scores. Last week against an SEC defense, he rushed for 76 yards on 17 carries, crossing the goal line twice. L.J. Scott (6’0, 226, So.) led the backs in rushing last week with 106 yards on only 16 carries for a tidy 6.1 average per touch. He was a top-50 back coming out of Ohio two seasons ago but played sparingly, rushing for 201 yards in limited snaps last season. The third ‘bruiser’ of the group would be Jeremy Smith (6’2, 221, So.), who may be the most talented of the trio. The transfer from Fresno City Community College (who rushed for over 1,700 yards) only rushed for 20 yards on carries as Smith, Scott and Jackson had the ‘hot hands’ on the ground against Auburn.

Line play will be key Saturday as the Cardinals have three new starters along the offensive front. The left side starts with Geron Christian (6’6, 320), who will be starting at left tackle. The true freshman out of Ocala, Florida was a 3-star prospect who had offers from Arkansas and Mississippi State. Lining up next to him at left guard will be Pedro Sibiea (6’3, 300, R-Jr.). The 3-star prospect started out as a defensive lineman out of Homestead, Florida and is a first year starter. Tobijah Hugley (6’3, 290) started 12 games last season at center and was awarded a scholarship after competing his first two seasons as a walk-on. Skylar Lacy (6’6, 305, Jr.) will be the third new starter as he’ll be the starting right guard with veteran Aaron Epps (6’7, 288, R-Sr.) holding down the right tackle spot and having a shot at the NFL, according to Herman.

Last week against the Golden Eagles, the Coogs front seven allowed only 29 yards on 33 carries. Tomme Mark (6’2, 285, Sr.), B.J. Singleton (6’4, 290, Jr.), Cameron Malveaux (6’6, 270, Jr.) will have to be stout at the point of attack to allow the linebackers behind them to shoot the gaps in order to make stops at or behind the line of scrimmage. Steven Taylor (6’1, 220, Jr.), from his strongside spot, and Elandon Roberts (6’0, 230, Sr.) from his middle position, will have to stay aggressive yet smart against the Cards, who will want to run downhill right at the two undersized backers. Tyus Bowser (6’3, 228, Jr.) must pressure Jackson but CANNOT lose backside contain or he’ll leave a gaping hole in the Coogs defense that could be exploited by Jackson or any of the Cards running backs with a simple one-cut step to the weak side. Inside linebacker Mathew Adams (6’0, 208, So.) surprisingly didn’t accumulate a single tackle against the Golden Eagles after a suburb true freshman season last year, so look for the youngster to use his quickness and high football IQ to be around the ball Saturday.

In the passing game, the Cards lost their biggest threat and most experienced wide receiver when James Quick (6’1, 191, Jr.) hurt his ankle last week as he was the only wide out returning who had more than 10 receptions last season. The slot receiver should be replaced by youngsters Charles Standberry (6’3, 226, So.) or Traveon Samuel (5’7, 178, Fr.) as the two combined for 3 catches for 28 yards and are listed one and two on the Cards depth chart. Jaylen Smith (6’4, 184, Fr.), DeVante Peete (6’6, 202), Emonee Spence (6’3, 194) and Samuel are a quartet of highly touted freshman who have the physical tools yet are athletic and can make the spectacular catch as well. Peete led the way last week with 60 yards on 3 receptions with Smith adding 34 on 3. Spence did not catch a pass. Tight end Micky Crumb (6’4, 257, R-Fr.) caught 2 passes for 19 yards and is an effective inline blocker in the run game.

While Stewart and McDonald cannot get burned off of play-action, it will be on starting corners William Jackson (6’1, 185, Sr.) and Brandon Wilson (6’0, 198, Sr.), along with nickel back Lee Hightower (6’2, 195, Sr.), to communicate as well and play their intended assignments whether in zone or man coverage in order to not get beat. The Coogs secondary will have to use their athleticism to matchup with the Cards long armed receivers as Orlando will have them in man coverage early and often.

Offensively for the Coogs, their game plan will probably be similar to the Cards, IE establish an inside run game early. Herman wasn’t pleased with his senior running backs, Kenneth Farrow (5’10, 218, Sr.) or Ryan Jackson (5’10, 190, Sr.) as both missed cut back lanes as the head coach marked it off the “first game jitters.” He was pleased with Javin Webb (5’8, 175, So.) however as Herman described him as “a fearless runner who has very good vision and explodes through the hole.” While Farrow and Jackson combined for 77 yards on 18 carries and a score (by Jackson), Webb rushed for 39 yards on just 5 carries while crossing the goal line twice. This of course was in mop up duty late in the game against an FCS foe, not against 4 and 5 star level talent that the Cardinals possess.

Houston QB Greg Ward Jr. (5’11, 178, Jr.), much like that of the Cards QB Jackson, really put on a display last week as he rushed for 101 yards on 14 carries, including a zig-zagging 41 yard run for a score. Offensive coordinator Major Applewhite will continue to call designed QB runs whether they be keepers up the middle, or based off zone read plays or roll outs. It’s in the passing game where Ward will have to continue his progression, after connecting on 21-of-27 passes for 275 yards with a TD. That 77.7 completion percentage is similar to his career 67.1 percentage as Applewhite will continue with the short passing game to get the ball into the hands of his receivers out in space.

As always (and yes I will say this every week), a QB is only as good as his line blocks for him. Houston’s offensive line played ok last week considering it was their first game of the season, but the starting line of Marcus Oliver (6’3, 270, So.), Ben Dew (6’4, 315, Sr.), Colton Freeman (6’4, 286, R-Fr.), Carter Wall (6’4, 295, Sr.) and Alex Cooper (6’4, 297, Sr.); from left to right tackle, must up their respective games against a huge Cardinals front seven that brings the heat in Todd Grantham’s 3-4 scheme. Up front for Louisville, the key will be defensive end Sheldon Rankins (6’2, 303, Sr.), who had 8 sacks and 13.5 tackles-for-loss last season but is athletic as well as he intercepted two passes in various zone drops that Grantham will call as he sends blitzers from every conceivable angle (just as Orlando does for Houston). Joining the big man will be DeAngelo Brown (6’0, 308, Jr.) at the nose and Pio Vatuvei (6’2, 296, So.) at the other end spot as they try to clog up the middle for a quartet of athletic linebackers that Grantham tries to funnel all the action (tackles) to. Oliver at left tackle will have to contend with former TCU Horned Frog, Devonte’ Fields (6’4, 245, Jr.). The 2012 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year is power enough to bull rush his way into a sack yet quick enough off the edge to blow by opposing left tackles. While playing a good game Saturday night, Oliver is still just a true sophomore in his second start and must be weary of trying to get a head start in his blocking, which leads to false start calls. Joining Fields will be Keith Kelsey (6’1, 236, Jr.) and James Burgess (6’0, 230, Sr.) at the inside spots and Keith Brown (6’1, 237, Jr.) at the other outside spot. Grantham is very aggressive with his backers on the blitz but they’re also effective against the pass in coverage as the former Dallas Cowboys assistant and University of Georgia DC will mix zone and man coverage on the back end.

When the Cards secondary is in man coverage, it will be on a young Coog receiving core to do damage once the ball is in their hands. Demarcus Ayers (5’10, 178, Jr.) caught 10 passes last week for 121 yards on various bubble screen passes and added 44 more yards on 4 carries on speed sweeps motioning across the line. Besides Ayers, the only other notable receiver was Kyle Postma (6’3, 205, So.) who had 82 yards on receptions including a nice 33 yard score in which he tip toed along the sideline after catching a short inside screen pass from Ward. The Cougars head man on the surprise of the team early in the season, “what a story. I felt like a buffoon, because we didn’t make the switch earlier, and I thought there would be no way he’d be ready to go by the first game. We literally moved him there on Monday of game week, and he comes out to the game and doesn’t miss an assignment and gets 80 yards and a touchdown. We’ll continue to build his role. He’s a tremendous athlete. He has a knack for finding open spaces and a knack for making guys miss. He doesn’t always look the prettiest doing it, but he’s a 10-foot broad jump guy. I’ve seen him do some crazy slam dunks. He’s a very explosive athlete for a guy that’s 6-1 and 200 pounds.”

Chance Allen (6’2. 200, Jr.), Steven Dunbar (6’2, 195, So.), Isaiah Johnson (6‘3, 190, R-Fr.), Linell Bonner (6‘0, 200, So.) and Tyreik Gray (5’11, 185, Sr.) will all have to pick up their games against a talented Louisville secondary touted with 4 and 5 star prospects along with transfers from SEC schools (Georgia). The young receiving crew caught a combined 8 passes for 108 yards with Allen making the biggest impact with 3 receptions for 56 yards, though Ward over threw him twice on deep post patterns that he’ll have to connect on in order to loosen up the Cards front 7. Dunbar, after steadily improving as the season progressed last year, didn’t catch a pass last week. Tyler McCloskey (6’2, 245, Jr.) caught 2 passes for 19 yards last week as he was lined up at tight end on almost every single snap, something Coogfans are not use to seeing.

The Cardinals secondary is led by UGA transfers Josh Harvey-Clemons (6’5, 230, Jr.) at safety and Shaq Wiggins (5’10, 171, Jr.) at corner. Clemons hits like a Mack truck from his rover-like position in center field yet is fast enough to cover smaller receivers. His innate ability to be around the football led him to two interceptions against Auburn. Joining the pair is cover corner Trumaine Washington (5’10, 181, So.) and Chucky Williams (6’2, 204, So.) at the other safety spot. Washington was beat deep for a TD off of a play action pass when his eyes were caught in the backfield against Auburn due to the Tigers speedy QB, which I’m sure Applewhite also noticed and may be able to exploit but must be careful as Washington also had an interception.

The Cougars special teams played pretty well against the Golden Eagles and must continue to excel if they hope to upset the Cards. Kicker Kyle Bullard (5’11, 170, Sr.) must connect on all of his field goals and Ty Cummings (5’10, 180, So.) and punter Logan Piper (6’1, 200, Sr.) must pin Louisville deep in their own territory as the cover teams look to reestablish themselves after regressing last season. Ayers, Brandon Williams and Ryan Jackson all had nice games in the punt and kickoff return games but will have a more difficult time finding space to maneuver as Petrino, like Herman, plays his best players on special teams. For the Cards, kicker John Wallace (6’0, 190, Sr.) connected on 15-of-19 field goals last year but only 1-of-3 last week but one was a 61-yarder. Punter Josh Appleby (6’3, 222, Sr.) was shaky last week but was to be expected in his first year as starter. The Cards did not return a punt or kickoff last week but have Jaire Alexander (5’11, 184, Fr.) and Savage listed as punt returners on their depth chart with Corvin Lamb (5’9, 208, Sr.) and Samuel as kick returners. Not having James Quick will also hurt Louisville as he was an exceptional return specialist last season. Though Louisville is listed as more than a 10 point favorite (as of this writing), I think the game will be close so any hidden yards either special teams unit can acquire for its squad would no doubt help to win the game.

Final Prediction: As mentioned previously, this game will be about old school football in a new age era, meaning both QBs are as important to their teams’ running game as their running backs are. Which team will establish its run game? Can the Cougars overcome the “adversity” they will certainly face at some point during the game? I say yes as the Coogs win in a nail biter as the Cards are looking towards their matchup next week with Clemson.

Final Score: Houston 28 Louisville 24


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