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Louisville’s offense won’t make bouncing back easy for NC State

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It’s a good thing we like a challenge!

Boston College v Louisville Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

You could describe nearly the entire ACC with that one Alonzo Mourning gif, and that is the beauty of 2021: each team is a shrug and a nod, often in chaotically different ways.

The land of contrasts most relevant to our interests this week is Louisville, which is the Wolfpack’s homecoming opponent on Saturday. The Cardinals are 4-3 overall and not that far from 6-1 but also could easily be under .500 at this point.

They were outclassed by Mississippi to open the season but have been riding a roller coaster ever since: they won on a walk-off pick-six against UCF, then tried to blow a 31-7 lead to Florida State the following week. Next time out, they erased a 10-point fourth quarter deficit at Wake only to lose on a field goal in the waning seconds. The next week, they blew an 18-point fourth-quarter lead to lose to Virginia. It’s a wonder anybody in that fan base is still alive.

That’s the sort of run you can get from a team as imbalanced as Louisville, which has an outstanding offense and a crum-bum defense.

That offense is averaging 6.7 yards per play in ACC games and ranks 11th nationally in SP+. Quarterback Malik Cunningham is in the midst of a third consecutive strong season and once again is garnering little any attention for it. It’d help if the program were more successful, but still the lack of recognition is perplexing.

Cunningham leads all ACC players with 13 rushing touchdowns and his 480 rushing yards lead the Cardinals. He is completing 63.4 percent of his passes, which ranks sixth in the league, and averages 8.2 yards per attempt, which ranks fifth. That versatility makes him extremely dangerous, and also not the sort of challenge NC State was looking for the week after losing Isaiah Moore.

Louisville averages 201 yards rushing per game and has hit the over on that in three straight. The Cards demolished Boston College last week to the tune of 331 rushing yards on seven per carry. They have yet to score fewer than two rushing touchdowns in a game, and they’ve been held under 4.0 YPC once. They’ll head to Raleigh feeling as confident about this aspect of their offense as they have all year.

Louisville doesn’t have the star power at receiver that it has in the past—there’s no Tutu Atwell-types to worry about—but this hasn’t really mattered since Cunningham gives defense 50 different things to think about. Tight end Marshon Ford is the team’s leading receiver with 313 yards on 30 catches. Five different guys have double-digit receptions.

Tyler Harrell is not one of them, but he’s also the only guy with more than one receiving touchdown. He has three: a 59-yarder at FSU, a 75-yarder at Wake, and a 91-yarder vs. UVA. He has 272 yards on eight catches this season. Best to keep a wary eye on that fellow.

There’s a lot to account for with this offense, mostly because Malik Cunningham can do a lot more than keep you honest with either his feet or his arm.

The Cards’ defense does not have Malik Cunningham, though he probably couldn’t help anyway. You can’t throw the ball on defense, for example. You don’t even get to have the ball!

Louisville has offered little resistance to the above-average offenses that it’s had to contend with this season: Mississippi averaged 7.8 YPP against them, UCF averaged 6.5, FSU 6.0, Wake averaged 6.0, and UVA averaged 6.1.

Sometimes the rush defense ain’t so bad, sometimes the pass defense ain’t so bad, but generally those efforts haven’t coincided. But Louisville has picked off at least one pass in six straight games, which helps. They have nine interceptions on the season, already almost double their total from last year.

Turnover margin was a real killer for this team in 2020—they finished minus-12—but they’ve improved on both sides in ‘21 and that’s translated into a more competitive team on the scoreboard.

If that string of interceptions continues then NC State might well be in trouble, seeing as how State has struggled to force turnovers of its own. State made more mistakes than its opponent last week and lost a close game as a result; that better have been a strong lesson learned.