Some of the preseason hype for Thursday night’s matchup between Louisville and Houston has faded, but this mid-November non-conference showdown still has plenty of importance in the national landscape. The Cardinals ranked No. 5 in the latest College Football Playoff selection committee rankings and need to win out – and probably impressively – to have a shot at one of the top four spots. The Cougars opened the season with a huge victory over Oklahoma, but coach Tom Herman’s team lost two games and needs a lot of help to get back in the mix to win the American Athletic Conference’s West Division.
Louisville has cruised to a 9-1 record behind dynamic sophomore quarterback Lamar Jackson and an underrated defense. The only blemish on the schedule came at Clemson (42-36) in early October, but the Cardinals have been dominant for most of the year. Coach Bobby Petrino’s team has posted seven of its nine wins by 30 points or more, with Duke (10) and Virginia (seven) the only ones under that threshold. However, one roadblock to Louisville’s playoff hopes has been the lack of marquee wins. The Cardinals crushed Florida State 63-20 in mid-September but beat just one other team – Wake Forest – with a winning mark. Could that be the biggest factor that keeps Louisville out of the playoff? Perhaps. However, the Cardinals have two more chances – at Houston and Kentucky – to make a statement and hope for a couple of losses in the teams ranked in the same range.
After defeating Oklahoma 33-23 in the season opener, there was plenty of momentum behind Houston crashing the playoff as a 13-0 Group of 5 program. However, injuries – including one to quarterback Greg Ward and a couple of key defenders – struggles on the offensive line and turnovers prevented the Cougars from living up to the high expectations. Houston fell 46-40 to Navy on Oct. 8 and was surprisingly handled by SMU 38-16 on Oct. 22. After the Cougars lost to the Midshipmen, it’s easy to see how this team might have had a letdown. Even though the New Year’s Six bowl trip was in play, Houston was no longer a playoff contender.
The all-time series between Louisville and Houston is tied at eight victories apiece. These two teams have met only twice since 2004, with the Cardinals winning in 2013 and the Cougars claiming a 34-31 victory last fall.
Louisville at Houston
Kickoff: Thursday, Nov. 17 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Louisville -14
Three Things to Watch
1. Houston QB Greg Ward
The health of Houston quarterback Greg Ward is the biggest storyline surrounding this game. The senior aggravated an injury to his throwing shoulder in last week’s 30-18 win over Tulane. While the injury is a concern and could force the coaching staff to alter its gameplan a bit, Ward is expected to start on Thursday night. The senior torched Louisville for 334 total yards and three passing scores last year and leads all players in the American Athletic Conference by averaging 337.4 total yards per contest. Ward is on pace to surpass last year’s passing totals (2,608 yards and 16 scores through 10 games), but his rushing totals (429 yards and nine touchdowns) are down from 2015. Whether it’s due to the shoulder injury (trying to avoid hits?) or coordinators are scheming to stop Ward’s mobility more, the senior is averaging just 2.98 yards per carry. That’s a far cry from the 5.6 Ward posted last fall.
Even though Ward may not be at full strength, Houston desperately needs its senior quarterback to carry the offense. The line has struggled to protect (26 sacks allowed), and the offense isn’t getting consistent production from a running back to take some of the pressure off of Ward’s shoulders. The senior does have a talented group of receivers at his disposal, with Linell Bonner (68 catches) and Chance Allen (14.5 ypc) leading the way. Will the Houston offensive line hold up long enough for Ward to get the ball in space to his playmakers? And how will the shoulder injury impact the gameplan? Can Ward handle 15-20 carries on the ground?
2. Louisville’s Offense Against Houston’s Defense
The matchup of Louisville’s offense against Houston’s defense is one of Week 12’s anticipated showdowns. The Cougars were hit hard by a couple of key injuries on defense this year, yet still rank third in the American Athletic Conference in fewest points allowed per game (21.3), lead the conference in rush defense, hold opponents to just 4.6 yards per play and have limited opposing offenses to just 14 plays of 30 yards or more. Coordinator Todd Orlando is one of college football’s rising stars in the assistant ranks, while each level of the defense features its share of standout players. Freshman Ed Oliver (16.5 TFL) can dominate in the trenches, with Matthew Adams (55 tackles), Steven Taylor (8.5 TFL) and Tyus Bowser (6.5 sacks) leading the way at linebacker. Cornerbacks Howard Wilson and Brandon Wilson anchor the secondary, with safeties Garrett Davis and Khalil Williams combining for 100 tackles, two sacks and four pass breakups.
Containing Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson is no easy assignment. After all, no defense has managed to stop Jackson this season. The sophomore has a commanding lead in the Heisman Trophy race and his stat totals are staggering. Jackson has rushed for 1,334 yards and 19 scores and passed for 2,898 yards and 27 touchdowns. In last year’s meeting, Jackson shared time with Kyle Bolin and accounted for 168 yards in a 34-31 Houston victory. Considering the timeshare at quarterback, it’s hard to know how Houston will counter Jackson on defense. However, expect the Cougars to use an athletic and active front (25 sacks) to keep the sophomore in pocket and prevent runs to the edge. It’s no secret Jackson has made strides as a passer. Despite the improvement, Houston wants to take away Jackson’s rushing ability and turn him into a pocket passer. If there's a weakness on Louisville's offense, it starts up front with the line. Can Oliver and the Houston defensive line consistently generate a push and win the battle in the trenches?
3. Louisville’s Defense
Lost in the Lamar Jackson hype has been the play of Louisville’s defense. Quietly, the Cardinals have assembled another standout group under coordinator Todd Grantham. Louisville ranks third in the ACC in scoring defense (20.3 ppg), limits opponents to 4.2 yards per play, is second in the conference in rush defense and second in third-down defense. Similar to Houston, each level of Louisville’s defense features a standout performer. Tackle DeAngelo Brown (10 TFL) anchors the interior, with Keith Kelsey (68 stops) and Devonte Fields (five sacks) leading the way in the 3-4 set at linebacker. Cornerback Jaire Alexander is one of the nation’s best-kept secrets and has intercepted five passes through 10 games.
While this unit has been overshadowed, it could earn a lot of respect on Thursday night. Houston’s offense averages 37.6 points a game and is led by one of the nation’s best quarterbacks in Greg Ward. Containing Ward is the top priority for Grantham. If the defense contains Ward and forces him to stay within the pocket in long-yardage situations, Louisville’s defense is going to win the battle against a high-powered offense.
Louisville is going to get Houston’s best shot. Provided quarterback Greg Ward isn’t limited or struggles with an injured shoulder, the Cougars will rise to the level of competition and keep this one closer than the line suggests. However, even if Ward is at full strength and delivers a standout performance, it probably won’t be enough. Jackson won’t be contained for all four quarters, and the sophomore eventually connects with tight end Cole Hikutini and receivers James Quick and Jamari Staples in the second half to get the offense on track. The Cougars cover the spread, but Louisville keeps its playoff hopes alive with a road win.