BTP: Lamar Jackson has been in my mind the most electrifying player in college football this season. To this point, he's effectively doubling his passing yards per game from last season, in addition to rushing for almost 140 yards per game. What in your mind is the reason he's taken such a dramatic step forward to being one of the best players in all of college football?
MR: I think the skills have always been there, but we had no idea when we were watching him play last season just how much Lamar was essentially winging it.
Jackson basically admitted this summer that he had no idea what he was doing at any point last season outside of the Music City Bowl game against Texas A&M. He said that he didn't know the plays, and that when something was called, he would pretty much lock onto one wide receiver, see what he was doing, and then take off and run if that guy wasn't open. With that truth known, it's fairly remarkable that Louisville was able to win eight games last season and that Jackson was as effective as he was.
After a full off-season of digesting the playbook, learning how to read opposing defenses, and spending the whole spring doing nothing but working on his passing, the Lamar Jackson we saw in 2015 is almost unrecognizable. He still has moments where he locks onto one guy, relies on his athleticism too much or takes an unnecessary shot down field, but his evolution has been remarkable, and the otherworldly stats reflect that.
BTP: Obviously if Louisville wants to have a shot at winning the Atlantic Division, they need to win this game on Saturday. What will be the Cardinals' gameplan to walk out of Papa John's Stadium with a victory against the Pack?
MR: After the, uh, close call (sorry, guys) (ed. note: MIKE WHY?!) that Clemson had in Death Valley last weekend, I think most Louisville fans have given up on the idea of having a shot to win the Atlantic and are fully focused on the long shot of still sneaking into the College Football Playoff.
The biggest thing that U of L has to do is bring the same type of energy they did in the first five games, and not what we saw from them last Friday against Duke. I don't know if it was the bye week, or if the loss to Clemson was still sticking with them, but there was a noticeable difference in enthusiasm both on the sidelines and on the field against the Blue Devils. If they do that again on Saturday, they could easily lose and have all their aspirations shattered.
Louisville's also struggled with penalties and poor special teams play the last couple of weeks, a pair of things that need to be cleaned up. The final thing would be the defense getting off the field on third down. It's something that they had been really good at before the Duke game, where they let the Blue Devils convert on eight of 16 third down attempts. Lamar Jackson and the offense are going to put numbers on the board, so you have to get them as any snaps as possible.
BTP: NC State's defense put on a hell of a show against Clemson last weekend. How will Louisville look to slow down the Wolfpack's hard hitting front seven?
MR: Having Lamar Jackson at quarterback is certainly a start, but this is definitely one of the only front sevens on the Cardinals' schedule that has the ability to effectively take him out of his comfort zone.
The last two weeks, Jackson has made the wrong decision on the read option play multiple times. The results of those plays -- whether he's incorrectly handed the ball off or kept it -- have been five yard losses when they could have easily been 30-yard gains. Reading the ends and linebackers more effectively on those called plays is the biggest thing he needs to do on Saturday in order to have success against NC State. If Jackson can get the run game going against the Pack's stout rush defense, then that should open things up for him to make plays with his arm.
BTP: Who is one player on the Louisville offense other than Jackson that NC State fans should keep an eye on during the game? How about on the defense?
MR: I'll say tight end Cole Hikutini on offense. He's a terrific weapon, and if NC State's linebackers key too heavily on the run, Hikutini is good enough to burn them deep over the middle on some play action passes.
On defense, I'll go with Drew Bailey, who actually played really well against NC State last season after an injury to a starter forced him to play major snaps. He was one of the guys expected to fill the shoes of Sheldon Rankins -- the first round draft pick of the New Orleans Saints -- but he had been something of a disappointment before last week. In the game against Duke, he recorded a career-high 11 tackles including three behind the line of scrimmage, and picked up the ACC Defensive Lineman of the Week award. If he continues to play that way, it'll make the jobs of linebackers and pass rushers like Keith Kelsey and Devonte Fields that much easier.
BTP: Any major injuries to report heading into Saturday's game?
MR: Bobby Petrino and his staff are extremely tight-lipped about injuries, so if anything major has happened in practice this week, we probably won't know about it until Saturday morning.
The one guy to keep an eye on is cornerback Shaq Wiggins. He played his best game as a Cardinal in the win over Florida State, but hasn't played since then because of injury. His replacement, Trumaine Washington, was beaten for three touchdowns in the Clemson game. Jaire Alexander, Louisville's other starting corner, has been tremendous, so Wiggins returning would force opposing offenses to stop avoiding Alexander's side of the field completely.
BTP: Let's get a prediction on the game - who wins Saturday?
MR: Before the start of the season, I actually picked NC State to win this game. Louisville always seems to have one conference game where they lay an egg and lose a game they were favored to win. Of course that was before I knew the Cardinals were going to have the Heisman Trophy favorite at quarterback and were going to be averaging 52.8 ppg.
If U of L doesn't play with more focus and intensity than they did a week ago, then this could easily be as close as the NC State-Clemson game. I'm banking on that not happening, so I'll say Louisville 38, NC State 21.