When the talent level is so evenly matched on the field, coaching can definitely play a huge part in a game. It figures to do so when two top-notch coaches, Jimbo Fisher and Bobby Petrino, square off this Saturday in Kentucky.
On the surface, Fisher and Petrino don’t appear to have much in common, but stemming from similar backgrounds, the two coaches are both excellent quarterback developers. The more developed quarterback in this matchup — Deondre Francois or Lamar Jackson — could make the difference
Petrino played college football at Carroll College in Helena, Montana from 1980-’82. He became a graduate assistant coach at Carroll in 1983 and worked his way up the ranks from quarterback coach to offensive coordinator over the next 15 years. Petrino finally received his first head coaching gig at Louisville in 2003.
Fisher had a similar beginning to his football career. He played college quarterback just a few years after Petrino at Salem International University in 1985 and 1986 before transferring to Samford for the 1987 season. After one season in arena football, he returned to Samford for a graduate assistant position and worked his way up to offensive coordinator at LSU by 2000.
Having very similar starts to their careers gives these two coaches much of the same strengths and philosophies with the headset. Both are great at developing quarterbacks and want to win with offense.
One could argue no coach has done a better job of preparing a young signal caller early this season than Fisher. When senior quarterback Sean Maguire suffered a stress fracture in his right foot during summer practice, there were immediate concerns that Florida State would struggle to score until the veteran signal caller returned.
His replacement, Francois, has been spectacular since struggling early against Ole Miss in Week 1. On the first two drives versus the Rebels, the Seminoles didn’t gain a first down, and it looked like it was going to be a long night when Florida State trailed 28-6.
However, Francois found a rhythm behind Fisher’s patience and guidance, finishing the game 33-of-52 passing for 419 yards and two touchdowns. He also added 59 yards on the ground and drew comparisons to Fisher’s last great young quarterback, Jameis Winston.
Florida State was able to erase that 22-point deficit thanks in large part to the defense forcing three third-quarter turnovers. Taking the ball away can’t be considered a staple of Fisher teams, but the year the Seminoles won the national championship, Florida State recorded 35 takeaways and posted a plus-17 turnover differential.
Fisher’s team could be extremely opportunistic again this season. It has a plus-6 turnover differential through two weeks. The winner of the turnover battle is probably going to leave Louisville victorious.
It’s easy to say heading into this matchup that Cardinal quarterback Lamar Jackson is the more developed signal caller because he does have an extra year of college experience. He’s absolutely lit the nation on fire, accounting for 1,015 total yards and 13 touchdowns in roughly six quarters, but this will be his first true test.
How he does against Florida State will reveal how much he really has improved over the offseason. It will determine whether he truly is a Heisman Trophy candidate.
Similar to Fisher’s squads the last two years, Petrino isn’t known for having great ball security teams or takeaway-machine defenses. Louisville has an even turnover margin since Petrino returned as head coach in 2014, and this season, that turnover differential is minus-3.
Some of those mistakes have come in garbage time, but Louisville did turn it over three times versus Syracuse last week when the game was still relatively close.
Quarterback is the most important position on the field, and this game is a chance for Fisher and Petrino to prove they are the better “quarterback whisperer,” but limiting the mistakes will be just as important as gaining yards for these two young signal callers.