Stumbling Orange try to contain Lamar Jackson and keep their bowl hopes alive
Louisville's defense had its best performance against an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent to date with a 38-21 win over Virginia. Until that point, the Cardinals had yet to allow less than 28 points to a conference foe. It wasn't a dominant performance by any means, but for a unit that took a major step back under defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon this season, it constitutes progress.
The win elevated the Cardinals to 6-4 overall and 3-4 in the ACC, a mark that stands as a disappointment compared to what the team expected coming into the season. Still, wins over Syracuse and in-state rival Kentucky to close the year would be a welcome change from last year, when the Cardinals lost their final three games.
On the other end of the spectrum, Syracuse had a demoralizing defeat last weekend in a 64-43 loss to Wake Forest where the visiting Demon Deacons reeled off 24 points in the fourth quarter.
The loss was the third straight for the Orange, who dropped to 4-6 and 2-4 in the conference. In Dino Babers' second year as head coach, the team made some progress with a huge upset win over Clemson, but has faltered since and is in danger of missing out on a bowl game.
With Louisville and then a home game with Boston College, Syracuse must win out to clinch a bowl berth, which would be a tangible step forward for Babers and the program.
Syracuse at Louisville
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 18 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPNU
Spread: Louisville -13.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Dungey or Mahoney?
For the most part, it has been a terrific season for Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey, who in his junior year has begun to show complete command of head coach Dino Babers' up-tempo offense. However, Dungey has been dealing with a foot injury that kept him off the field in the loss to Wake Forest. In his place, senior Zack Mahoney stepped in and completed 33-of-60 passes for 384 yards and three touchdowns and two interceptions. That is about as well as can be expected of your backup, and it is not the quarterback's fault when the team scores 43 points but allows 64. Still, the Orange would prefer to have Dungey because he's the team's best option at the position and also the emotional leader of the offense. Dungey is questionable for this weekend's game, and his health will be worth monitoring.
2. Under the radar?
Is it possible that the reigning Heisman Trophy winner can actually be under the radar when it comes to repeating? That appears to be the case with Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, who is having a remarkable season yet already well off pundits' Heisman projections. While that's due to the fact that the Cardinals are not in the College Football Playoff picture, Jackson's actual performance, in some ways, has improved over last season. He has raised his completion percentage to 60.2 with 3,003 passing yards and 21 touchdowns to just six interceptions. He also has 1,176 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns. Those numbers are not on pace to match last year's, but his improved accuracy is notable, and it feels a little unjust that he's been so ignored this season. Look for another big performance by Jackson this weekend.
3. Divergent defenses?
For most of the season, Syracuse had made major improvements on the defensive side of the ball. It had not become a shutdown unit, but it was far better than last year, which culminated in allowing an embarrassing 76 points in a loss to Pittsburgh. This season, the defense was improved, but last week's performance brought up bad memories. Has it really turned a corner when it allows 64 points to an albeit improved Wake Forest team? Louisville's defense has been just plain bad this season, and perhaps defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon's struggles with the unit have done the most to hurt Jackson's Heisman hopes, as the Cardinals have lost games because of the defense. But perhaps last weekend's game was a turning point. Head coach Bobby Petrino would certainly hope so.
This represents an interesting weekend for both head coaches for different reasons. Dino Babers would like to show his fans that there is real reason for optimism after a promising start to the season fell flat over the last three games. Bobby Petrino finds himself — as he tends to annually — in the middle of coaching rumors galore, as the SEC in particular has a few intriguing openings. On the field, this should be a shootout, and Eric Dungey or no Eric Dungey, it appears a healthy Lamar Jackson should be the difference.
Prediction: Louisville 49, Syracuse 38
— Written by Adam Kurkjian, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and is a reporter for the Boston Herald. He has covered the World Series, Super Bowl, Stanley Cup playoffs, Boston Marathon and Little League World Series, among other events from the high school, college and pro ranks. Follow him on Twitter @AdamKurkjian.