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Meet Louisville and Lamar Jackson, the leader of its death machine offense

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Can NC State’s defense offer any resistance this weekend?

Duke v Louisville Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Louisville’s story should be well-known by now, thanks to the exploits of quarterback Lamar Jackson, who has earned countless press with his jaw-dropping plays. He’s nearly reached football legend status as a sophomore—he leaps over defenders; he flicks the ball effortlessly down the field; he avoids even the surest of sacks!

The Cardinals are a lot more than Jackson—for the second straight year they have a top-25 defense—but there’s no question that Louisville’s leap into elite status very much begins with its star quarterback.

Louisville S&P+ national rank Yds/Play
(national rank)
Yds/Rush
(national rank)
Yds/Pass Att.
(national rank)
2015 Offense 49 6.0 (42) 4.5 (54) 7.8 (38)
2016 Offense 1 8.2 (1) 7.3 (1) 9.2 (9)

When I saw Jackson in Raleigh last season, I came away with the impression that he’d be a good player down the road—the surprise is not just how quickly he’s improved, but how much he’s gotten better. While still an inconsistent passer at times, he is better pretty much across the board, getting more out of each attempt while committing mistakes less frequently.

With the ball in his hands on the ground, he’s proven to be as instinctive and decisive as he is fast, which is a horrifying combination to try to stop. Jackson averages 301 yards passing per game and 139 on the ground. He has accounted for more touchdowns than 100+ FBS teams.

He’s surrounded by upperclassmen—three up front, plus the running back, the tight end, and a couple of receivers. It’s not just that Jackson is good, it’s that he’s in a perfect spot to thrive, and that’s why this Louisville offense has been an unstoppable machine of death.

Senior running back Brandon Radcliff is averaging 8.1 yards per carry, while veteran wideout James Quick appears on his way to career highs in receptions and receiving yardage.

On standard downs, where opposing defenses have less an idea of Louisville’s intentions, the Cardinals are killing teams. They rank third nationally in standard down success rate and 15th in explosiveness on those downs.

(Standard Down = “First downs, second-and-7 or fewer, third-and-4 or fewer, and fourth-and-4 or fewer. These are the downs in which the offense could conceivably either run or pass and therefore has an overall advantage over the defense.”)

There’s simply too much for defenses to think about. (And Bobby Petrino happens to be a pretty good play-caller. )

Getting the Cards off the field is so difficult because they are so often staying on schedule thanks to that superior production on standard downs. And even when they do fall behind the sticks a bit, you never know what crazy thing Jackson may pull out of his hat.

Louisville S&P+ national rank Yds/Play
(national rank)
Yds/Rush
(national rank)
Yds/Pass Att.
(national rank)
2015 Defense 23 4.8 (16) 3.3 (8) 6.6 (39)
2016 Defense 21 4.6 (13) 3.5 (26) 5.8 (12)

Setting Jackson’s headlining presence aside, Louisville has a pretty good defense as well. With one notable exception this season (Clemson), the Cardinals have held each opponent to less than 4.5 yards per play. (Clemson averaged 8.2).

The Cards rate well above average in most advanced statistical categories, and in obvious passing situations, their defensive front becomes a bigger problem they rank 23rd in sack rate on passing downs as opposed to a more modest 52nd on standard downs.

So that’s something to watch: Can State keep itself out of a lot of passing downs (which is a bad idea regardless of opponent) and give it better odds of sustaining drives? That’ll be crucial early.