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Previewing Louisville: Cardinals have plenty of talent, but not all of the luck

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Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Louisville's first play from scrimmage in 2015 was an ill-advised lob into coverage by freshman quarterback Lamar Jackson that was intercepted by Auburn. The Cardinals rallied late to make it a game with the Tigers but ran out of time, unable to completely overcome some crippling errors like Jackson's throw.

There was more to that result than I would have figured at the time. Auburn would prove to be far worse than its preseason national title hype warranted--the Tigers are 0-2 in the SEC after consecutive losses to LSU and Mississippi State, the latter at home.

And Louisville struggled to put the Auburn game behind it, losing at home to Houston the following week. The Cardinals responded well on short rest against Clemson, but again they didn't quite do enough.

Is this a bad Louisville team? Not by any stretch. The Cardinals absolutely are talented enough to put together a good run through ACC play, and this is a bowl-caliber team whether they get that far or not. The losses to Houston and Clemson were by a combined six points; sometimes it's your year to nab the close ones, and sometimes it ain't.

(Houston, by the way, is ranked 57th in the latest F/+ standings. That is not a bad team.)

There's still plenty of time left for course correction, it's just hard to shake the surprise of Louisville's 1-3 status in early October.

USA Offense Off. S&P+ national rank Yds/Play
(national rank)
Yds/Rush
(national rank)
Yds/Pass Att.
(national rank)
2015 50
5.7 (70) 4.2 (84) 7.2 (64)
2014 49 5.5 (73) 3.6 (103) 7.7 (37)

Jackson progressed from that interception against Auburn to grab hold of the starting quarterback job in Louisville. Bobby Petrino has already started three different players at QB this season without finding a genuinely satisfactory answer, and with Jackson coming off a fantastic effort against Samford (I know...), he's willing to let the freshman grow.

And why not? While no one in the QB group has created any separation through passing acumen, Jackson's speed gives him a clear advantage there. He ran for 100+ on Auburn, and he picked up another 181 against Samford. Jackson has had good early success with the read-option and has the explosiveness needed to make big plays happen. His arm's not bad, either.

The trouble so far has been the penchant for mistakes--he has four interceptions thrown in 70 attempts, which is an unacceptable rate of one for every 17.5 attempts. But at some point you gotta quit your hemming-and-hawing over the starter at a position, and when all else fails, lay at the mercy of a young guy who can make big plays.

Louisville is doing that, and could be that in another month, the Cardinals' outlook offensively appears far more encouraging.

USA Defense Def. S&P+ national rank Yds Allowed/Play
(national rank)
Yds Allowed/Rush
(national rank)
Yds Allowed/Pass Att.
(national rank)
2015 29
5.0 (48) 4.2 (67) 6.1 (36)
2014 14 4.8 (11) 3.3 (13) 6.3 (17 )

The Cardinals averaged two interceptions per game in 2014, led by the efforts from Gerod Holliman, who in David Amersonesque fashion accounted for 14 picks by himself. Holliman is gone, but the Cards are nonetheless on an even better pace, with 10 picks through four contests.

This remains a tough group overall, but there has been noticeable dropoff in the Cards' ability to stop the run. They finished last season ranked 15th in rushing S&P+ (that's opponent-adjusted), while they're sitting at 54th in 2015.

The defense can be disruptive and obviously has gotten its share of takeaways, but it hasn't stalled an FBS ground game yet this year. FBS opponents are averaging about 4.5 yards per carry on Louisville, and more than 200 yards per game on the ground.

That has to be a primary concern heading into the weekend for Louisville, especially considering that the weather may entice NC State to lean even more heavily on running the ball.