By Dalton Ray–
On Nov. 12, No. 3 Louisville (9-1) used a 34-point fourth quarter to defeat Wake Forest. For the seventh time this season, the Cardinals scored more than 40 points. With conference play over for U of L, the Cards now take their top-rated scoring offense to Houston to face the Cougars (8-2). While the game isn’t a top 10 match-up that was expected at the start of the season, the game still holds large implications.
Head coaches – Bobby Petrino (12 years, 109-40, five bowl victories) vs Tom Herman (two years, 21-3, one bowl victory)
Two of the best offensive minds in the nation are going head-to-head Thursday night. Both coaches use different sets to cause confusion for opposing defenses. Both coaches surround their offense around the playmakers at quarterback.
Petrino uses more of a pro-style offensive set mixed with spread concepts. Herman’s spread offense is more of the new-age style and the Cougars rarely go under center. Last year, Herman got the best of Petrino as the Cougars upset the Cardinals at home, 34-31.
Offenses- Louisville (49.6 points per game, 583.2 yards per game), Houston (37.6 points per game, 452.4 yards per game)
Leaders- QB Lamar Jackson (4,234 total yards, 46 touchdowns), QB Greg Ward Jr. (3,037 total yards, 25 touchdowns)
Jackson and Ward are both the engines that make their teams go. When Jackson isn’t on the top of his game, the Cardinal’s offense is average and struggles to convert on third down and in the red zone.
Running back Brandon Radcliff is the team’s senior captain and has 768 yards with six touchdowns on the year. Radcliff reached his fourth 100-yard game of the year against WF. James Quick and Jamari Staples are the Cardinals’ leading receivers, combining for 70 catches, 1,193 yards and eight touchdowns. The team’s most consistent target is tight end Cole Hikutini. His 526 yards is good for fifth in the nation among tight ends.
The offensive line has had its ups and downs this season. After performing their best against Florida State, the Cards had early issues against both Marshall and Clemson. The line has let up 25 sacks on the year, including five against WF.
Houston’s Ward is a great athlete and serviceable passer but has been banged up all year. Ward is fourth in the AAC in passing yards and passing touchdowns. U of L couldn’t stop Ward last year as he totaled 347 yards and three touchdowns. Ward led the Cougars down the field for the game-winning touchdown.
The rushing attack is Houston’s biggest weakness, rushing for 1,686 yards in 10 games. Ward is the team’s leading rusher with 429 yards on 144 carries with nine touchdowns. Next is sophomore back Duke Catalon with 411 yards and two touchdowns. Houston hasn’t found a replacement to match Kenneth Farrow’s production from 2015. Houston ran for 3,301 yards last season.
Houston also had to replace their leading receivers from 2015. Linell Bonner is the leading wideout this season and ranks seventh in the AAC in receiving yards with 774. A pair of 6-foot-3 receivers in Chance Allen and Steven Dunbar aren’t far behind Bonner and have accounted for 1,222 yards and eight touchdowns.
The Cougars are more of a threat through the air but have allowed Ward to take some nasty hits this season. Not far off from Louisville in allowing 26 sacks, the Cougars’ line is very young. Houston only has one upperclassman up front.
Defense – Louisville (20.3 points per game, 285.2 yards per game), Houston (21.3 points per game, 303. yards per game)
Leaders – LB Keith Kelsey (68 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss), DT Ed Oliver (55 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss)
Up front, the Cardinals are led by nose tackle DeAngelo Brown. With nine tackles for loss, Brown is a great run defender a tough to move. Defensive end Drew Bailey has come on strong for U of L as the year has progressed, recording 39 tackles and seven for loss.
The Cardinals have great linebacking core in Devonte Fields, James Hearns, Stacy Thomas and Kelsey. Fields has 39 tackles and five sacks in nine games. Hearns is fifth in the ACC with eight sacks and has 11 tackles for loss. Thomas’ 58 tackles ranks second on the team. Kelsey is the heart and soul of the defense and leads the team in tackles.
In the secondary, the Cardinals have proven to be very flexible. Jaire Alexander has five interceptions on the year and has proved to be a huge play maker. Shaq Wiggins and Trumaine Washington have traded the other starting corner spot back and forth. Chucky Williams is having a great year at safety with 53 tackles and three interceptions.
Houston’s Ed Oliver is one of the most dangerous defensive linemen in the nation. Only a freshman, Oliver is fourth in the nation in tackles for loss. Oliver makes an absurd amount of tackles for a defensive lineman.
Houston’s linebackers have produced similar numbers to U of L’s. The inside linebackers have totaled 105 tackles with 14.5 for loss. Matthew Adams is tied with Oliver with 55 tackles. Outside linebacker Tyus Bowser leads Houston in sacks with 6.5.
Cornerback Howard Wilson has picked off five passes and has shown to be a dangerous man to throw on. Like Louisville, the other corner spot has bounced between Brandon Wilson and Jeremy Winchester. Houston has great safety play as Khalil Williams and Garrett Davis have combined for 100 tackles.
Photo by Nancy Hanner / The Louisville Cardinal