LOUISVILLE, Ky. – QB Lamar Jackson and his Louisville teammates have piled up so many points and yards and scores this season, their numbers can only be described as extraordinary.
Then ordinary Louisville and ordinary Lamar Jackson showed up Friday night against Duke. The Cardinals went into the game as 35-point favorites but snoozed their way to a 24-14 victory that will not exactly enhance their College Football Playoff résumé or Jackson’s Heisman campaign.
Certainly Duke coach David Cutcliffe has something to do with that. His game plan was masterful: Duke decided to play keep-away from Jackson and the Louisville offense, milking the play clock on every single snap while taking advantage of an aggressive Cardinals defense with a variety of screens.
As result, Duke held the ball for 15 more minutes and was within a field goal with less than two minutes left, but a roughing-the-kicker call on a missed Louisville field goal ended Duke’s upset chances.
Still, Louisville (5-1, 3-1 ACC) had season lows in total offense and scoring offense and looked sluggish when it had the ball. Remember, the No. 7 Cardinals came into the game averaging better than 600 yards and 58 points per game. The last time Louisville struggled this much on offense was nearly a year ago, when Jackson was a true freshman splitting time at QB (the Cardinals scored 17 points against Boston College and 20 against Wake Forest in consecutive games).
Even when Louisville did score Friday night, the drives never looked effortless. Jackson, who had 28 total touchdowns going into the game, was held to a season-low two, and came alive only near the end of the fourth quarter.
There certainly were opportunities. Jackson missed a wide-open receiver early in the game on what would have been a sure touchdown, and he was not as effective with his checkdown reads. But he was also kept on his toes by a Duke defensive line that limited the big plays for a vast majority of the game. Only late did Jackson display the spectacular runs we have grown accustomed to seeing.
Some will wonder whether it is fair that Louisville and Jackson might lose some ground this week. Right now, teams are compared against each other week to week, and so are Heisman contenders. Interestingly, a close loss to Clemson the last time out did nothing to dampen the Jackson hype, nor the discussion about whether Louisville was playoff-worthy.
That is because Clemson played like one of the best teams in the country that night. But that was not the case for the Cardinals on Friday under a national spotlight. When teams with playoff aspirations and players with Heisman aspirations don’t dominate the way they are expected to, perceptions are often colored.
Louisville has entered a stretch of its season when it will be favored. NC State is up next, and then Virginia, Boston College and Wake Forest. The Cards will be double-digit favorites in those games. Jackson has the Heisman lead, but players behind him are coming on strong. It might be unlikely that he’ll keep up the torrid pace with which he started the season, but what he does in the future will be judged against those first five games, and also against the feats of other players who have Heisman hopes.
We have seen other ACC teams take perception hits when they don’t win as much as they should. It happened to Florida State in 2014, and it happened late last season to Clemson.
Despite the subpar performance against Duke, Louisville still has playoff hopes, and Jackson is still one of the favorites to win the Heisman. But the Cardinals missed an opportunity to build on what was an impressive start to the season.