LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Lamar Jackson’s start has generated a buzz around Louisville and overshadowed an opportunistic Cardinals’ defense that has helped create chances for him to burst into the Heisman Trophy conversation.
The third-ranked Cardinals’ most recent performance suggests their defense is poised to raise its profile.
Jackson’s five-touchdown, 362-yard offensive performance in Louisville’s 63-20 rout of Florida State on Saturday was aided by a defense that registered five sacks and recorded two turnovers, both of which led to TDs. The Cardinals also held the Seminoles to three-and-out on their initial third-quarter possession and set the stage for Jaire Alexander’s 69-yard punt return TD that made it 42-10 and put the game out of reach.
“We push each other and that’s what it’s all about,” senior safety Josh-Harvey Clemons said. “The offense makes us work hard and if they have a bad series, it’s up to us to make it right. If we have a bad series, it’s up to the offense to make it right.”
The Cardinals defense did its part in holding FSU to 284 yards. But that didn’t satisfy a unit annoyed by allowing two 10-point spurts.
“We’re still making mistakes,” junior defensive end Drew Bailey said Monday. Florida State “still scored (23) points; they should’ve scored zero. … We still have a lot of stuff we have to clean up.”
Perhaps, but the Cardinals seem to be filling voids created by departures of players to the NFL draft.
Though Louisville returned senior lineman DeAngelo Brown, linebackers Keith Kelsey and Devonte Fields and Harvey-Clemons, the Cardinals needed to build depth after lineman Sheldon Rankins was selected in the first round by the New Orleans Saints. They have gotten impressive contributions several players, including junior linebacker James Hearns, whose team-high 3.5 sacks are one better than his career total entering this season.
Redshirt freshman linebacker Jonathan Greenard is tied with Fields for second with two sacks on a Louisville squad tied for fifth nationally with 13. Sophomore cornerback Alexander meanwhile has complemented his special teams play with some big moments on defense: his second-quarter fumble recovery at FSU’s 23 set up Jackson’s lone TD pass for a 28-10 lead. Chucky Williams’ interception led to another TD.
“We were able to set the edge and then get guys running downhill to fill the gaps,” Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said of the defensive strategy against FSU. “We mixed up coverages, we mixed up how we rushed, we blitzed at different times. It was just a great game plan by our defensive staff and very well executed by our players.”
Louisville enters Saturday’s game at Marshall (1-1) seeking to build on that effort while improving its tackling and run defense. Those prospects seem encouraging after a signature win the Cardinals suggest is just the beginning.
“Starting 0-3 leaves a bad taste in your mouth and most of the guys came back feeling like we have something to prove,” Harvey-Clemons said. “With us sticking together and the guys we have back, we feel like we can do great things.”