Louisville and standout quarterback Lamar Jackson travel to Raleigh on Thursday night to take on NC State and its shutdown defense in a critical ACC showdown between two teams hoping to keep the pressure on Clemson in the Atlantic Division. College football’s Week 6 slate features just two matchups between top 25 teams, with Thursday night’s game between ranked ACC programs expected to be one of the better contests for this week’s schedule.
Louisville enters Thursday night’s showdown riding a two-game winning streak since losing to Clemson on Sept. 16. The Cardinals thoroughly dominated Kent State and Murray State to a combined score of 97-13 over the last two games and previously defeated Purdue (35-28) and North Carolina (47-35). Coach Bobby Petrino’s team is led by reigning Heisman winner Lamar Jackson, who is off to another prolific start. Under the direction of new coordinator Peter Sirmon, Louisville’s defense has limited opponents to 4.93 yards per play and is tied for fourth in the ACC with 12 sacks generated. While Jackson is good enough to carry this team every week, the Cardinals aren’t a one-man show. There’s plenty of talent in the skill positions and on defense to push for 10 victories in 2017. However, after the loss to Clemson, there’s no margin for error in the Atlantic Division. If Louisville is to have any shot at the division title, it will require some unexpected losses to Clemson but also a 7-1 mark in league play.
NC State coach Dave Doeren appeared to be on the hot seat after entering mid-November with a 4-5 record last season. But the Wolfpack rebounded to win three out of their last four games and are off to a strong 4-1 start in 2017. NC State has already knocked off Florida State in Tallahassee and beat Syracuse 33-25 last Saturday. The lone loss for the Wolfpack came against South Carolina in the opener, but Doeren’s team completely dominated on the stat sheet – it just didn’t take advantage of opportunities or hold onto the ball. With a win over Louisville, NC State would set up a huge showdown against Clemson on Nov. 4 in Raleigh that could decide the winner of the Atlantic Division.
Louisville and NC State have met seven previous times, with the Cardinals owning a 6-1 edge over the Wolfpack. Since joining the ACC in 2014, Louisville is 3-0 against NC State and won last year’s meeting 54-13.
Louisville at NC State
Kickoff: Thursday, Oct. 5 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Louisville – 3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Louisville QB Lamar Jackson
Dynamic, prolific and playmaker. Those three words describe Lamar Jackson’s play throughout his Louisville career, and the junior is once again off to a strong start after winning the Heisman Trophy last fall. Containing Jackson is priority No. 1 for coach Dave Doeren’s defense. However, few teams have managed to do so. Can the Wolfpack find the right formula for Thursday night?
Jackson worked all offseason to develop as a passer and it’s clear that preparation paid off. The junior is completing 64 percent of his passes – up from 56.2 last season – for 1,636 yards and 13 passing scores. He’s also leading the team with 437 rushing yards and five touchdowns on 72 attempts. And the progress isn’t just limited to the stat sheet. While watching Jackson throughout the 2017 season, he looks much more comfortable within the pocket and going through his progressions in the passing game. The junior is tied for second in the ACC with four completions of 40 or more yards this season.
While Jackson is better as a passer and his ability to move within the pocket or scramble can alleviate the pressure on the offensive line, this is a tough assignment against a NC State defense limiting teams to just 23.4 points per game. However, in last year’s game, Jackson torched this group. He completed 20 of 34 passes for 355 yards and three scores and led the offense with 76 rushing yards and one touchdown.
Louisville’s skill positions may not be at full strength on Thursday night, as top receiver Jaylen Smith (22 catches) is not expected to play due to a wrist injury. With Smith sidelined, Dez Fitzpatrick (16), Seth Dawkins (18), Traveon Samuel (10) and tight end Charles Standberry (13) will take on a bigger role in the passing game. Additionally, the Cardinals need to get 10-15 productive carries from running back Malik Williams.
Will NC State’s defense do a better job of containing Jackson this time around? Or will Jackson get the best of the Wolfpack defense once again? This is a matchup of strength versus strength.
2. NC State’s Defensive Line Against Louisville’s Offensive Line
This is where Thursday night’s game is likely to be decided. Can Louisville’s offensive line protect well enough to give Jackson time to throw and allow the Cardinals to establish the run? At the end of last season, the offensive line struggled mightily in matchups against Houston and LSU, which was a key component in Louisville’s three-game losing streak to finish 2016.
While all of the issues aren’t resolved up front, it seems Louisville’s offensive line has displayed some improvement. Veteran assistant Mike Summers was hired over the offseason and is tasked with developing a group that has started two freshmen (Robbie Bell and Mekhi Becton) through the first five games. The Cardinals have allowed 11 sacks through five contests, including four surrendered against Clemson on Sept. 16.
How much has this unit progressed since the opener and the loss to Clemson? Thursday night should provide some insight, as NC State’s line ranks among the best in the nation. End Bradley Chubb is a lock for postseason All-America honors and has accumulated 12 tackles for a loss and 5.5 sacks through the first five games. The senior isn’t the only difference maker in the trenches for the Wolfpack. The senior duo of B.J. Hill and Justin Jones is a handful for opposing lines, with Kentavius Street and Darian Roseboro joining Chubb as threats off the edge.
It’s no secret that protecting Jackson and giving him time to throw is critical to Louisville’s gameplan on Thursday night. If Jackson has time to throw, he could have a huge night against NC State’s secondary. The Wolfpack have been dealing with some injuries in this unit but rank 12th in the ACC in pass efficiency defense. Also, the secondary has allowed six passing plays of 40 or more yards. For NC State to win, the defense needs to keep Jackson in the pocket and slow down Louisville’s ground attack, forcing the offense into third-and-long situations. If the Wolfpack get the Cardinals into long-yardage situations, that will allow Chubb, Roseboro and Street to dominate at the line of scrimmage.
3. NC State’s Offense
While much of the focus on offense in this game will reside on the Louisville sideline with quarterback Lamar Jackson, NC State’s attack is also a formidable bunch. The Wolfpack average 34.8 points per game and 5.94 yards per play and scored 27 against a loaded Florida State defense in the Sept. 23 win in Tallahassee.
Quarterback Ryan Finley is quietly off to a strong start this year, as he’s completing 71.9 percent of his passes for 1,403 yards and has passed for nine scores through five games. Additionally, the junior has yet to throw an interception and has connected on seven passes of 30 or more yards in 2017. Finley has a fast release and gets rid of the ball quickly to the playmakers out in space. While Finley may not have the strongest arm in the ACC, he’s got more than enough to test the Louisville secondary downfield.
Considering the weapons in place on NC State’s offense, Finley can function as a point guard by simply getting the ball to playmakers in space. The foundation for this unit starts up front with a standout offensive line, running back Nyheim Hines is averaging 5.01 yards per rush, and the receiving corps is among the best in the ACC. All-purpose threat Jaylen Samuels leads the team in receptions (43), receiving yardage (321) and touchdown catches (three). He also completed one pass for 25 yards against Florida State and has recorded 123 rushing yards and five touchdowns on 22 attempts this fall. Samuels isn’t the only playmaker for Finley on the outside, as Kelvin Harmon, Stephen Louis and Jakobi Meyers each have at least 19 catches in 2017.
Time of possession isn’t necessarily an important stat, but it gives some insight into NC State’s gameplan. The Wolfpack rank 12th in the ACC by generating just three plays of 40 or more yards this year but are third in the conference in time of possession. NC State wants to win the line of scrimmage and use short and quick passes to get the ball to playmakers in space.
Louisville will counter with a defense that ranks 11th in the ACC in points allowed per game (24.6) and is sixth in yards per play (4.93). This unit gave up 47 points to Clemson but dominated Kent State (42-3) and Murray State (55-10). How much progress has this unit made under new coordinator Peter Sirmon since the Sept. 16 loss to the Tigers? Thursday night’s game should be a good litmus test. Additionally, top cornerback Jaire Alexander could return after missing the last four games due to a knee injury.
With NC State’s offense focused on quick passes and establishing the run, Sirmon’s group has to find a way to win on early downs and force the Wolfpack into third-and-long. Additionally, turnovers could be critical to the outcome. NC State has lost only two turnovers so far this year, while Louisville has forced eight. A couple of takeaways by the Cardinals would swing this game in their favor.
This game isn’t short on intrigue. How will Lamar Jackson match up against NC State’s defensive line? Can the Cardinals find a way to contain Wolfpack defensive end Bradley Chubb? Can NC State avoid the mistakes that plagued this team in the opener against South Carolina? Look for Jackson to land his share of big plays against the Wolfpack secondary, but the defensive line will eventually take control of this game. NC State’s offense will generate a couple of solid drives, including one in the fourth quarter that seals the victory.