Once one of the most prolific teams in football, what happened to Louisville during their late-season collapse?
Just a couple weeks after quarterback Lamar Jackson was declared the best player in college football at the Heisman Trophy Presentation, Louisville had one of their worst games of the season, getting trounced 29-9 by LSU. That game marked their third loss in a row, a streak that started with unranked Houston and Kentucky. It’s an odd way for the season to end for a team that was once ranked #3 in the country and spent most of the season in the top seven.
At many points during the year, the Cardinals looked ready to seize a Playoff spot. Lamar Jackson appeared completely unstoppable and the defense was playing extremely well. In their last three games, however, the competition increased and the Cardinals found themselves unable to keep up.
Houston (Nov. 17), 10-36
Coming into the Houston game, Louisville was ranked #5 in the country, just outside a Playoff spot. With the Ohio State-Michigan game looming and both Clemson and Washington coming off of losses, the Cardinals were poised to jump into the top four with a win over an underperforming Houston team that had recently fallen out of the rankings.
Instead of coming out strong and taking care of business against a supposedly weaker team, Louisville fumbled away the opening kickoff and never recovered. It was a 0-31 blowout at halftime, but there would be no comeback. Jackson managed one touchdown pass in the third quarter, but the Houston defense played extremely well, forcing three total turnovers and sacking Jackson 11 times. Jackson only completed 46.5% of his passes, a (then) season-low. He was clearly frustrated with all the sacks, and unable to overcome a strong Houston front.
The Cardinal defense played much better in the second half, but giving up 31 first-half points was an uncharacteristic performance. The real culprit here was special teams, as the Cougars enjoyed great starting field position for most of the game. They needed an average of 49 yards to score on their four touchdown drives.
In a word, this game was sloppy. Adding on to their offensive and defensive struggles, Louisville committed a season-high 15 penalties for 114 yards. It was exactly the opposite of the performance they needed.
Kentucky (Nov. 26), 38-41
After slipping outside of the top 10 (and thus out of Playoff contention), Louisville’s remaining regular season game was a rivalry matchup against Kentucky. The Cardinals entered as 28 point favorites in a bout that they had not lost since 2010. The Heisman race was heating up with Deshaun Watson starting to hit his stride, and this game was a great opportunity for Lamar Jackson to finish his season on a high note. Instead, he committed four turnovers, including a crucial red-zone fumble with four minutes left in the game.
This game quickly became a shootout, and Jackson’s stat line shows that. He scored four total touchdowns and amassed 452 total yards, with three of those scores coming in the first half. The second half was a different story however, as the Cardinals’ final five possessions went INT, INT, touchdown, fumble, INT. On his fumble, he made the wrong decision on a read, choosing to take the ball himself rather than handing it off to Brandon Ratcliffe.
This game was especially bad for the Cardinal defense. They gave up 581 total yards to the Wildcats, including 338 passing yards to quarterback Stephen Johnson, who has averaged just 157 per game this season. They were giving up big plays all day as Johnson averaged 21 yards per completion. This was especially disconcerting as Kentucky runs a very run-heavy offense. Excluding this game, Kentucky has averaged 29 points, and their two highest scoring games were 62 against New Mexico State (3-9, Sun Belt) and 49 against Austin Peay (winless FCS team). Taking out those two games, the Wildcats averaged just 23.8 points. Simply put, Kentucky is a very mediocre offense, and they had no business putting up 41 on a team like Louisville. Only Clemson put up more points on Louisville than Kentucky did.
In a microcosm for the entire game, the defense allowed Kentucky to drive 60 yards on seven plays in just 1:33 to hit the game-winning field goal.
LSU (Citrus Bowl, Dec. 31), 9-29
After the season ended in the worst way possible, Lamar Jackson was awarded the Heisman Trophy on December 10th. Louisville was invited to play LSU in the Citrus Bowl, which presented a great opportunity to change the narrative of their disappointing season and finish with a win. LSU had a top five defense, but Louisville had the Heisman. It was predicted to be an interesting and competitive contest, but it turned out to be anything but.
Lamar Jackson was flat out awful in this game. He had a season low in nearly every relevant QB statistical category and also lost one fumble. He looked uncomfortable and was held to zero scores for the first time this season. Jackson was sacked eight times and completed just 37% of his passes. LSU was without a doubt the best defense that Louisville played all season, and the Tigers were able to completely dominate the Cardinals, holding them to just 220 total yards of offense and 11 total first downs. It was the first time all season that they failed to score a touchdown, and nine points was a season low.
Louisville’s defense started this game well, holding LSU scoreless in the first quarter. They then allowed two quick touchdowns in the second quarter, and another in the third. Star LSU running back Derrius Guice went for 138 yards and one score while quarterback Danny Etling went for 217 yards and two scores. No one thing doomed the Cardinal defense in this one; they simply had an overall bad game. LSU dominated possession time as Louisville’s defense couldn’t get off the field.
Over the final stretch of the season, Louisville experienced a collapse unlike any we’ve seen in recent years of college football. They went from a dangerous Playoff contender to a team that looked like they could get blown out in the Boca Raton Bowl. In the end, Lamar Jackson finally came down from the clouds, and the defense couldn’t stop anyone. The team became sloppy and completely unrecognizable from their early-season selves. The defense went from allowing 20 points per game in the first 10 to giving up 35.33 over the final three. Lamar Jackson averaged just 294 yards and 1.67 touchdowns per game over those final three after averaging 423.2 yards and 4.3 touchdowns in the first 10.
It’s tough to place the blame for such a sharp drop-off on any one player or unit. The Cardinals were matched up against some of the best defenses they saw all season in those final three games, including two top 10 defensive units (LSU and Houston). While Lamar Jackson’s early dominance certainly wasn’t a fluke, it does appear that his stats may have been inflated by weak defenses. When matched up against above-average ones like Wake Forest, Houston, and LSU, his pure athleticism just wasn’t enough. The rest of the offense didn’t play much better, but a player like Jackson tends to dominate the touches. Over the final three games, he either passed or ran the ball on 79% of Louisville’s offensive plays. It’s tough to overcome a slumping player when the offensive is almost exclusively run out of that one player.
Luckily for Louisville, Lamar Jackson and his talent will be returning next year. This was really his first season on the national stage, so it’s safe to assume that he should improve during the offseason. The physical talents are clearly there; it’s the maturity that might need a little work. On the defensive side of the ball, aggressiveness will be key in 2017. During the early parts of the year, they could afford to have sloppy games while Jackson was scoring six touchdowns on his own. None of Houston, Kentucky, or LSU had particularly strong offenses (Houston was the highest ranked, #42 nationally in total offense), yet the Cardinals allowed them each to gain over 360 yards. They don’t need to necessarily have a great, daunting defense in every game; rather, they need a consistent defense that allows their star quarterback to spend more time on the field.
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