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Know Thy Opponent 2017: Louisville Cardinals

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The reigning Heisman winner is preparing to tee off on the Purdue defense.

NCAA Football: Louisville Spring Game Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

The official start of summer brings with it the start of our summer previews for the coming football season. Over the next few weeks, in addition to our player countdown, I will be working on a summer preview of all 12 opponents as we approach the season.

Last season’s opener was a nice, easy opponent. Purdue opened with Eastern Kentucky and raced out to a 21-0 lead in the first 12 minutes thanks to an interception returned for a touchdown by Gelen Robinson that had him in the running for the Piesman Trophy. That would probably be the highlight of the season, as Purdue stumbled to a 3-9 record and Darrell Hazell was mercifully fired.

Things will not be so easy in 2017. Sure, we once again begin with a team from our southern state neighbors, but the Louisville Cardinals are on a completely different plane of existence from Eastern Kentucky.

There are a lot of connections between Purdue and Louisville even though the teams have played just once. Separated by roughly 180 miles of I-65, the two only met in 1987 in a 22-22 tie in West Lafayette. They agreed to do this neutral site game in Indianapolis, however, as part of the season kickoff weekend. New Purdue coach Jeff Brohm is a former star quarterback at Louisville and got his first head coaching job from Louisville’s Bobby Petrino when Petrino left Western Kentucky after going 8-4 in 2013. Brohm took what he built and went 8-5, 12-2, and 10-3 with two conference titles.

Brohm and Petrino have a very long relationship, so even though this game was scheduled long before Brohm came to West Lafayette it is only fitting he debuts against the Cardinals.

Louisville Cardinals

2016 Record: 9-4, 7-1

Bowl Result: Lost 29-9 to LSU in Citrus Bowl

Blog Representation: Card Chronicle

Series with Purdue: Tied 0-0-1 (only meeting was a 22-22 tie at Purdue on 9/19/1987)

Last Purdue win: None

Last Louisville win: None

Head Coach: Bobby Petrino (109-43, 67-22 at Louisville)

Last Season for the Cardinals:

Louisville was very, very close to playing for a National championship last season. In one of the best games of 2016 the Cardinals lost to Clemson 42-36 thanks to a stop on 4th and 12 from the Clemson 14 with 33 seconds left. That cost the Cardinals a chance at the ACC title, as Clemson went on to win the ACC and the National crown. Louisville later dropped non-conference games at Houston and at home to Kentucky before losing its bowl game to LSU 29-9. In mid-November, however, Louisville was sitting at 9-1 and needed only a slip up by Clemson to be in the title picture. They were even 5th in the playoff rankings before the loss at Houston.

A big reason for this was a murderous offense that I’ll get to in a second. In the first four games of the season the Cardinals unleashed holy hell on college football by averaging 63.5 points per game. They would finish sixth at 42.5 per game, and they were behind Western Kentucky’s 45.5 per game.

Basically, Louisville had everything going for it until it was demolished at Houston 36-10. The Cougars were able to do that by having a defensive line that registered 11 sacks. That started a spiral where the Cardinals lost their last three games of the season, including a home rivalry game against a mediocre Kentucky team and a bowl game against LSU.

That made for a disappointing finish to an otherwise excellent campaign. Louisville will be looking to win the ACC this season and be in the playoff picture once again. Their complete destruction of No. 2 Florida State last season was one of the most shocking results of the year (63-20 and it wasn’t even that close). They get Clemson and FSU against this year in conference play and should be a solid 9-10 win team.

Louisville Offense

The Cardinals will once again be an excellent offensive team thanks to the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, Lamar Jackson. Let’s be blunt here: Lamar Jackson is likely going to do filthy, unspeakable things to a Purdue defense that has struggled for years. He struggled against Houston last season because the Cougars performed their best impression of Purdue vs. Kansas State and Michael Bishop in the 1998 Alamo Bowl. We do not have Rosevelt Colvin and Chike Okeafor coming back to help. We don’t even have a Ryan Kerrigan making it his personal mission to ruin Terrelle Pryor. Purdue’s defensive line is expected to be an issue and we’re not getting 11 sacks in one game on Jackson.

Jackson was incredible last year. He threw for 3,543 yards and 30 TDs against 9 interceptions, but was sacked 46 times. He was also incredibly dangerous running the ball with 1,571 yards and 21 touchdowns. Think of him as Antwaan Randle El, only better and on a good team. I have no earthly idea how we’re going to stop him.

The running game was quite potent even without Jackson. Brandon Radcliff rushed for 903 yards and 6 TDs, but he is off to the NFL. Jeremy Smith had 382 yards and 8 TDs, but was injured this spring. The same is true for Dae Williams, who redshirted last year. That may open the door for 4-star back Colin Wilson.

In terms of receivers, the Cardinals have a good group with Seth Dawkins (11-191-1), Jaylen Smith (27-599-6), and Dez Fitzpatrick (redshirt freshman that had a good spring game). The top three receivers from last year are gone, but this is a versatile offense that spreads the ball around and gets space for Jackson to run.

The biggest question mark, aside from running back, is the offensive line. The 46 sacks is a high number even if it was skewed by the disastrous Houston game. Jackson does not need a lot of time to do something though. He has weapons around him, especially with guys like Reggie Bonnafon and a couple of solid tight ends. Purdue’s defensive line will have to somehow be dominant in order to have a chance.

Louisville Defense

The Louisville defense was more than good enough last season. It gave up only 115.2 yards per game on the ground and 207.1 through the air. Teams scored just 23.8 points per game on the Cardinals, and that was skewed by their three game slide at the end of the year.

All four starters return in the secondary led by Jaire Alexander. He had five interceptions a year ago and even returned one for a touchdown in their spring game. Still, Louisville gave up an ACC worst 29 passing TDs. Of course, a player like Lamar Jackson can erase a ton of mistakes by the defense just because he makes the Louisville offense so dangerous. Chucky Williams also gives them a ton of experience at safety.

Stacy Thomas is a solid linebacker to build around. He finished last year with 85 tackles, 7.5 for loss. He also had an interception. James Hearns can play both outside linebacker or defensive end and he had a team high eight sacks last season with 11 tackles for loss and 43 tackles overall.

Up front there are a lot of questions. Drew Bailey is a definite starter after notching 58 tackles and nine for loss last season, but Louisville is in a bit of a rebuilding year. We’ll likely have some more answers up front as we get closer to the season.

Louisville Special Teams

Blanton Creque was pretty good on field goals, hitting 16 of 19 with a long of 47, so there are no major worries there. In the rare situations where Louisville had to punt Mason King averaged more than 43 yards per kick. Jaire Alexander also gives Louisville a very dangerous punt returner, as he had a 10.26 yard average and even took one back all the way.

Game Outlook

This certainly looks like a mismatch 95 days away when you look at it from the early summer. Purdue has opened as nearly a four touchdown underdog and with good reason. Louisville is a near certain preseason top 25 team with the best offensive player in college football. Purdue has won five games against FBS competition in four years.

It is going to take a near perfect performance from Purdue in all phases to have a chance here. The defensive line is going to have to be dominant and harass Jackson into mistakes. The Cardinals had a problem with sacks and fumbles last season, especially late. Offensively, we have to find at least a serviceable offensive line and receivers that can catch the ball with a modicum of regularity. The schemes are going to be there. David Blough, if he is not running for his life, should have a decent season. Purdue has some pieces to instantly improve the offense.

Unfortunately, it is an issue of talent. There is a reason Brohm has brought in four graduate transfers and several JuCo players. Purdue needs to get a lot better in far too many areas for me to feel confident.

Purdue needs dramatically better play along both lines, green receivers to mesh with Blough, and the secondary to come together in a hurry to have any sort of chance here. Brohm is rebuilding with grad transfers and JuCos, but this is probably too much for game one.

Way Too Early Prediction

If Purdue is not sharp Lamar Jackson is going to have a field day. The Cardinals appear to have a lot to work out offensively and defensively, but they have the talent to survive some growing pains. Purdue doesn’t. I will be satisfied if Purdue is still close at halftime and makes them sweat a little. Louisville 41, Purdue 14