Louisville Cardinals

Big plays barely propel Louisville past Duke

Louisville's James Quick (17) pushes off a tackle by Duke's Jordan Hayes (13) during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Friday, Oct. 14, 2016, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)
AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley

The Louisville Cardinals still have an outside chance of making the College Football Playoff, but they will have to earn it with what the committee calls “style” points. The Cardinals have to win the rest of their games, and they must dominate most of the competition to justify making the final four without a conference title.

Louisville wasn’t able to do that Friday night. Even at home and coming off a bye week, Bobby Petrino’s squad appeared “hungover” in its first action since losing at Clemson. The letdown allowed Duke, a .500 team that came into Week 6 winless in the ACC, to stick around until late in the fourth quarter. Louisville escaped disaster, winning 24-14.

What might be most concerning, though, is Duke appeared to lay the groundwork for how to beat this Louisville team.

If fans who missed the game just take a quick look at the box score, the numbers suggest Louisville dominated. The Cardinals rushed for 288 yards and outgained the Blue Devils 469-239, yet Duke trailed by just three points with under two minutes left in the fourth quarter.

Duke stayed competitive and gave Louisville a scare by avoiding the major mistakes until a game-sealing roughing-the-kicker penalty in the final minutes. The Cardinals have capitalized on takeaways and field position better than almost every other team in the country this season. Entering Friday’s game, Louisville was ranked second in the FBS with 69 points off turnovers.

But the Blue Devils didn’t turn the ball over, and their kicking game was very good, so the Cardinals rarely had good field position. Excluding the final series when the Cardinals just kneeled on the ball to end the game, Louisville started a drive in Duke territory just once, and it led to a missed field goal. Louisville began with the ball at its own 20 or inside its own 20 six times, including twice inside the 15.

This is easier said than done because Louisville has a ferocious defense, and sophomore punt returner Jaire Alexander creates great field position with his masterful returns (he scored a touchdown Friday night against Duke that was overturned due to a block in the back penalty that had absolutely no impact on the return), but if future opponents can eliminate giveaways and cover well on special teams, the Cardinals will have a much harder time scoring.

The lack of takeaways wasn’t the only problem for the Louisville defense. The Cardinals gave up only 3.98 yards per play, but they still couldn’t get off the field. Duke converted 8-of-16 third-down opportunities, which allowed the Blue Devils to control the ball for over 37 minutes in the game.

With that kind of time of possession domination and no takeaways, Louisville had only nine offensive possessions, and again, six of them started at the UL 20 or worse.

Fortunately for the Cardinals, they avoided a disastrous loss at home due to a couple big offensive plays. Shortly after Alexander’s punt return was called back because of the penalty, junior running back Jeremy Smith ran for a 80-yard touchdown. At that point, the Cardinals were ahead by three, so although the Blue Devils eventually answered with their own touchdown, the long run began to swing in Louisville’s favor. Furthermore, quarterback Lamar Jackson had a 29-yard completion to senior wideout Jamari Staples on the first touchdown drive and a 53-yard strike to freshman receiver Seth Dawkins that led to a field goal.

With such bad field position most of the night, Louisville needed those big plays to get passed Duke.

They survived, but the Cardinals need a better effort the rest of the season if they plan to stay in playoff contention.

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