Thursday night’s ACC showcase between Louisville and Clemson feels like the first real desperation game of the 2015 season.
Louisville’s schedule was obviously daunting from the moment it was released, featuring two teams ranked in or right near the Top 10 of most preseason polls in Auburn and Clemson. The possibility of starting on the wrong side of .500 was hardly a reach before the campaign kicked off, but the Cardinals’ loss last week to Houston makes 0-3 a very real possibility.
For a team that came into its second season as an ACC member on the periphery of the Top 25 with some modest buzz as a dark-horse conference title contender, the script flipped for Louisville rather quickly.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” head coach Bobby Petrino put it bluntly on this week’s ACC teleconference call.
Louisville isn’t exactly a train wreck. The Cardinals’ losses to Auburn and Houston were by a combined 10 points.
Clemson could roll into Papa Johns Cardinal Stadium tonight and win by as little as one — Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney noted last year’s game went down to the final play and he doesn’t “expect it to be any different this week.”
And yet, the end result would be no different than if Louisville was dropping games by Savannah State margins.
The pressure to win tonight is further compounded by this being the only one of the Cardinals’ three matchups with the top-half of the ACC Atlantic coming at home. Louisville opens October with back-to-back road trips at NC State and Florida State, albeit with a bye week in between.
Petrino evidently recognizes the situation is dire. His shuffling of quarterbacks through two weeks point to the desperation setting in, as Louisville has had three play in the first two games.
Lamar Jackson split snaps with Reggie Bonnafon Week 1 and Kyle Bolin Week 2.
The revolving door may not be turning, with the sophomore Bolin performing well against Houston and the freshman Jackson playing like…well, a freshman.
“We’ve been able to see the talent and excitement Lamar has…but he’s very young,” Petrino said. “It’s a very different game between high school and college.”
Jackson’s thrown three interceptions in two games, contributing to precisely the chief issue Petrino sees with his offense right now.
“Offensively, the No. 1 thing we need to do is eliminate the turnovers and the timing of the turnovers,” Petrino said. “One of them led to a touchdown and we ended up losing by seven points.”
Contrast that with Bolin, a perhaps unspectacular but effective game-manager.
“Kyle came in last week and operated the offense. He understands how the offense works,” Petrino added. “He was able to distribute the ball and get us a couple touchdowns.”
The quandary a celebrated quarterbacks guru Petrino faces is this: Are the Cardinals better with the high-risk, high-reward of Jackson, or a steady presence with Bolin?
Louisville’s situation is in stark contrast to that of Clemson, which has its playcaller in Deshaun Watson. The Tigers’ Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback
Based on Louisville’s first two losses, we could know what kind of night both Watson and the Cardinals are in for.
“The first drive of the game and the first drive of the third quarter have really hurt us on defense,” Petrino noted.
Much as the opening drive could well tell the story of Louisville’s Week 3, Week 3 sets the stage for the rest of the Cardinals’ season. The gap between 1-2 and 0-3 is miles wide.