Jackson, Superb Louisville Offense Will Provide Tough Challenge

After weeks of hearing what his team wasn’t capable of doing, Steve Addazio has spent the days following Boston College’s 21-14 victory against NC State reminding the media that a competitive spirit still burns brightly in the Eagles’ locker room.

“To see our kids come together and really, really draw the best out of each other and get validation for the hard work and what they’ve put into this was fantastic,” Addazio said at his press conference on Monday. “Just look what we can do when we come together and we play as a team.”

As the Eagles (4-4, 1-4 Atlantic Coast) snapped their 12-game ACC losing streak, joyously flinging months of negativity and futility from their backs, Addazio proved emphatically that he has not lost the ear of his players. Often, on teams that have suffered massive defeats, the coach will lose his locker room, with the season spiraling to a depressing conclusion.

But Addazio is determined to avoid this fate. Much to his credit, despite deflating 49-0 and 56-10 losses to Virginia Tech and Clemson, respectively, he has kept his players focused on improving and putting their full energy into each game. He has fostered a tangible pride among the players, a bond amongst each other and the program, forged in the crucible of a steady stream of criticism. On Saturday, he felt that this team spirit was a key factor in the Eagles long-awaited victory.

“I thought that we saw our team play together for each other hard and with great resolve,” Addazio said.

Having answered the armchair critics that questioned the coach’s leadership and the team’s competitive drive (for now), the Eagles must build upon their newfound momentum and answer the more tangible questions about their on-field product, specifically the offense. Even though they emerged victorious last Saturday, BC still struggled to build any semblance of a consistent rushing game, totaling only 108 yards on 43 carries, if Jeff Smith’s 60-yard scamper is neglected. In the passing game, Patrick Towles completed barely over 50 percent of his passes, and averaged just 6.18 yards per throw. Addazio blames at least some of the passing struggles on a high number of dropped passes.

“We just had too many drops,” he said. “We’ve challenged our receiving corps.”

Whatever the reasons for the struggles, this week’s matchup would be an excellent time for BC to take a step forward from an offensive execution standpoint in a relatively judgment free setting. With No. 5 Louisville (7-1, 5-1) and the Heisman Trophy incarnate, Lamar Jackson, coming to town Saturday afternoon as 24-point favorites, the Eagles are playing with house money.

Scoring 50.3 points and totaling over 600 yards per game, both tops in the nation, the Cardinals’ offense has taken on a surreal, video game quality. Any discussion of this unit starts and ends with its superstar triggerman. Jackson has already accounted for a school record 38 touchdowns, 22 passing and 16 rushing, and has become the first player in ACC history to have more than 15 rushing and passing touchdowns in a single season. He is currently set to smash the ACC record for total yards per game, a mark now held by former NC State quarterback Philip Rivers.

The Heisman favorite is the perfect man to pilot coach Bobby Petrino’s vertical spread offense. Louisville possesses the third most explosive offense in the nation, by Football Outsiders’ IsoPPP+ metric, averaging a whopping 15.87 yards per pass completion. They are the only team to rank in the top 12 in both passing and rushing offense. Jackson’s singular greatness lies at the heart of this production.

He leads the Cardinals with 996 rushing yards, seventh in the entire country. Jackson is utilized on a bevy of designed quarterback runs, including a heavy dose of zone read plays. Blessed with an unnatural combination of speed and lateral agility, Jackson routinely leaves defenders grasping air in his wake. While he is relatively skinny, this agility makes Petrino unafraid to have his quarterback run up the middle. Senior running back Brandon Radcliff, who has 605 rushing yards and averages 7.1 yards per carry, has emerged as a highly qualified second option in the ground game. Radcliff, who has lost 20 pounds since last season, now runs much more smoothly and possesses the ability for explosive plays. Buoyed by their dynamic duo, the Cardinals rank first nationally in Football Outsiders’ Opportunity Rate, which measures the percentage of run plays that gain at least five yards, when such yardage is available.

In the passing game, Jackson has a rifle arm, capable of driving throws into tight windows and slinging the pigskin over 50 yards downfield. Additionally, this season, he has shown a developing sense of touch on his throws. While he doesn’t have the most traditional pocket fundamentals and sometimes likes to scamper around to create plays instead of taking the simple pass, Jackson’s skill level often overcomes these minor deficiencies. He looks to target receiver James Quick and tight end Cole Hikutini, among others, on intermediate to deep throws. Petrino’s passing offense is egalitarian, with four different receivers having over 350 yards and 10 different receivers having caught at least one touchdown pass.

Much of this stems from Jackson’s ability to simply find the open target, instead of locking in on a single receiver. And if all of his receivers are blanketed, Jackson is a nightmare for defenses to contain on quarterback scrambles, with the long receiver routes taking most of the defenders away from the line of scrimmage.

On Saturday, look for the Louisville offense to give the Eagles’ defense fits. Jackson and Petrino present Addazio’s team with all of the elements they have struggled to defend this season: a spread offense played at a rapid tempo and a running game driven by an extremely mobile quarterback. The Cardinals will target the linebackers or reserve defensive backs stuck in coverage on receivers, and will look to attack the secondary in juicy one-on-one matchups. On the ground, expect a heavy dose of designed quarterback runs, with Jackson testing the closing speed of the Eagles’ linebackers. To have any chance of at least limiting this mammoth offense, BC must take Radcliff out of the contest, forcing the run game exclusively into the hands of Jackson. Additionally, in the passing game, they must force him to stay in the pocket. Though easier said than done, if Jackson’s scampers can be limited, Louisville loses one of its most frequent means of picking up first downs.

While the Cardinals’ offense gets most of the publicity, the team’s defense is no slouch either. Led by the aggressive linebacking trio of TCU transfer Devonte Fields, Keith Kelsey, and James Hearns, Louisville has the nation’s 10th best defense by Football Outsiders’ S&P rankings. They allow opponents to pick up first downs on just 51.7 percent of drives, second best in the country. A commitment to stopping running backs behind the line of scrimmage boosts this rating, as the Cardinals end 24.8 percent of opposing run plays with a tackle for loss.

This success, usually on early downs, creates a lot of long third downs for the opposition. As a result, opponents only convert 28.2 percent of third downs against Louisville, sixth nationally. A strong secondary, led by safety Josh Harvey-Clemons, limits opposing passers to under 200 yards per game and is a major reason why Louisville ranks 14th in Football Outsiders’ IsoPPP+ allowed metric, which rates how well defenses prevent explosive plays.

That statistic doesn’t bode well for the Eagles on Saturday, as the team has struggled to score on drives that don’t contain big plays. Even Addazio acknowledged as much on Monday, citing a lack of consistency in execution.

“We have a hard time sustaining consistency long enough for those long, methodical 12, and 13, 14, 15-play drives,” Addazio said.

Against a defense that will likely grind the Eagles’ run game to a screeching halt and against a secondary that doesn’t give up big plays, it looks like the Eagles’ best shot at a massive upset victory will be to string together long drives of short passing plays. That way, they can eat away at the clock and shorten the game, limiting the number of possessions the Cardinals can have, and artificially capping their potential point total. Doing so will require BC to address its biggest tactical deficiency of the season, providing them an opportunity to hush even more of the critics.

And if this mission should fail, at least the fans will still have the Lamar Jackson fireworks show to look forward to.

Featured Image by Ryan M. Kelly / AP Photo

November 3, 2016