Train may have finally arrived for Louisville football

The ESPN hype train arrives in Louisville on Friday, making Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium the center of the college football universe, at least for the weekend. A major intersection, a crossroads for UofL football program. Maybe still another milestone.

A game pitting the No. 13 University of Louisville football against third-ranked Clemson, featuring Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson against the defending national champion. Against a team and a coach that believed former CU quarterback Deshaun Watson was more deserving on the Heisman award.

UofL badly needs to get its first win over Clemson in four tries, after falling short, knocking on the door at the end, losing all three games by six points or less over the past three seasons. Leaving the field with their offense in the shadow of the goalposts each time, knowing they could have, probably should have won each of those games.

Former UofL assistant Vance Bedford once urged Louisville fans to get on board the train. And they will be Saturday night, upwards of 55,000 fans or so, probably setting another all-time attendance record for Cardinals’ football.

Make no mistake, much at stake here for Louisville football. Win and the program will take a monumental leap in national respect. Lose and the journey just gets harder and longer, postponing the inevitable into an uncertain future.

Blow the horn, stoke those coals, fan the flames, darken the skies with black smoke. Louisville football, time to go.

Lamar Jackson, 6 times 6, Louisville downs North Carolina

Lamar Jackson (top photo) scores his first rushing touchdown of the season with a 53-yard jaunt early in the third quarter. Jackson (above) gets a pat on the head and congrats from from teammate Jaylen Smith (Cindy Rice Shelton photos)

Opposing teams almost know what to expect from Lamar Jackson.Read the scouting reports, Watch the film. Read and re-read the scouting reports, Watch the film. Plot and scheme for him all week long. Tailor their entire defensive plans to slow him down.

Their problem is catching him. Jackson is unpredictable. Not even he knows what he’s going to do next. Relying on his quickness, his instincts, his confidence, his fear of failure, his not wanting to go down, and his love of the game.

Cindy Rice Shelton photo.

His special talents on full display Saturday in the University of Louisville’s 47-35 win over North Carolina before a crowd of 47,635 at Chapel Hill.

“Lamar Jackson is every bit as good as everybody says he is and thinks he is,” said UNC coach Larry Fedora after witnessing Jackson’s special talents for himself..

Jackson threw for 393 yards and three touchdown while also running for 132 yards and three more TDs. The last one running through a gauntlet of would-be tacklers on an 11-yard run with 3:06 remaining. Capping a dominant fourth quarter for the Cardinals, improving their season to 2-0 overall and 1-0 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

His favorite targets, junior Jaylen Smith and freshman Dez Fitzpatrick, making themselves available to him early and often. Smith had nine catches for a career-high 183 yards and a touchdown for Louisville, while Fitzpatrick was turning in two TDs.

UofL racking up a total of 705 offensive yards, compared to 401 for North Carolina. The good news was that UNC gained only 17 yards rushing. The bad news was at times they looked almost unstoppable in the passing game with 384 yards.

More great news coming with no fumbles, no interceptions, and only one false start. But still the Cardinals had their hands full, trailing 28-17 going into the fourth quarter. Jackson would put finish the Tar Heels off with a couple of touchdowns in the final 15 minutes.

The best news of all was UofL finding someone who can carry the ball besides Jackson. That would be freshman Malik Williams racking up 149 yards on 13 carries at a pace of 11.5 yards per carry.  Help has arrived.

Louisville football needs to get better quickly

Stacy Thomas turned momentum in Louisville’s favor with a 61-yard touchdown after an intercepted pass in the third quarter (Cindy Rice Shelton photos).

Football is supposed to be an entertaining game but the University of Louisville’s 35-28 win over Purdue was everything but fun. Hard to watch when so many things are going wrong, afraid of what’s going to happen next.

The false starts by the offensive line, becoming almost predictable by the third quarter, backing UofL up much of the night. This from what was expected to be a much-improved, albeit inexperienced at key positions.  Ten false starts, surely a record for edginess, almost obscuring any progress on this front.

“That’s so disappointing to me, to have all those false starts,” said Coach Bobby Petrino. “That’s something we really worked hard on. There were a couple of freshmen starting but we’ve obviously got to play better than that.”

Video replay confirmed that Reggie Bonnafon scored on a 10-yard jaunt in the third quarter (Cindy Rice Shelton photo).

On the other hand, the young offensive line would not allow Purdue a single sack, a positive sign compared to late last season when the sack count sometimes approached double digits.

If visions of past fumbles came to mind on the opening drive, it was good reason. Quarterback Lamar Jackson lined up on the Purdue 3-yard line, coughing up the ball on his very first series of the season.  No quick touchdown on the opening drive, fumble-itis was back, UofL turning the ball three times in the game.

Jackson still needing to provide the bulk of the offense, getting little help in the running game from Reggie Bonnafon and Jeremy Smith who managed only 33 yards between them. He would rush for 111 yards and complete 33 of 46 passes for 378 yards and two aerial touchdowns.

The offense struggling to keep Louisville in the game. Opposing coaches possibly figuring out how to contain Jackson much of the time. Or was it because Purdue Coach Jeff Brohm knows Petrino’s offense almost as well as the UofL coach? Probably a combination of both.

UofL’s other All-American candidate, cornerback Jaire Alexander, would be injured early in the second quarter and would not return to the game. His teammate Stacy Thomas would come through with a 61-yard touchdown on an intercepted pass in the third quarter. Chucky Williams would pick off another Purdue pass in the end zone.

Painful game overall, however, irritating until the end. A painful reminder that 27-point underdogs are never as bad as they should be, especially in the first game of the season. Especially against a bunch of Brohm boys from Louisville.

The Cardinals need to make significant progress between their first and second games to be taken seriously this season. No getting off to a great start, no big first impressions. No early thoughts about college playoffs.

UofL tailgaters were out in force at Lucas Oil Stadium (Cindy Rice Shelton photo).

Heisman, Smeisman, Lamar Jackson will be much improved

Lots of different feelings tumbling around, ranging from unbridled confidence, cautious optimism to some outright trepidation, as the 2017 college football season begins Saturday for the University of Louisville.

For the first time ever, UofL will have a Heisman Trophy winner calling signals, one of the fast and most elusive quarterbacks to ever play the game, crazy quick feet and a shotgun arm. He’s also bigger, has another year of maturity, hopefully learning from the season-ending adversity.

For much of the national sports media to overlook him is an indictment of the same people who made him the Heisman winner last season. Jackson is inevitably going to be much better, folks, with the sophomoritis behind him. He’s got it all now — speed, experience and, most of all, with extra motivation, thanks to the second guessers.

For Lamar Jackson, a Heisman Trophy is secondary to winning games (Cindy Rice Shelton photo).

Jackson may not come close to the touchdown production he had last season — 20 rushing, 30 passing. He’s going to be depending more heavily on some of his talent teammates, at least according to Coach Bobby Petrino, noting that Jackson doesn’t have to do it all himself.

With a new offensive line coach in Mike Summers and more beef, talent and experience on that line, Jackson should have more time to read opposing defenses, go through the progressions, find open receivers and provide more opportunities for his running backs.

Oh, he will continue to be a major scoring threat. He’s still going to do more than his share of scoring. But Louisville has a chance to have much more balance on offense this time around. The offense will be anything but predictable, no more zeroing in on Lamar Jackson on every snap.

Reggie Bonnafon may finally be where he needs to be, having played quarterback, running back and wide receiver during his first three seasons at UofL. He’s the featured running back as the season begins, with a chance to finally live up to four-star billing coming to UofL. This is his senior year, and we think he gets it, it is now or never.

The stable of running backs also includes Jeremy Smith and Malik Williams. All three of them are capable of going the distance on any play or broken tackle. The fact that they are lining up with Lamar Jackson makes even more unpredictable.

Jaylen Smith and Seth Dawkins appear ready to pace the wide receiver corps, having impressed Petrino during the pre-season. “Both of them are catching the ball and getting open, and we’re able to do different things with them,” said Petrino.

Over on defense, there’s Jaire Alexander, a pre-season first team All America selection at cornerback, capable of breakout games on defense and kick returns. Linebackers James Hearns and Trevon Young will terrorize opposing quarterbacks. And there are four seniors on the defensive line.

Much to be enthused about on the eve of the 2017 season. Anything and everything is possible, ranging from a possible breakthrough for a conference championship to another collapse. An experienced team returning, having had  nine months to think about those three consecutive losses at the end of the last season. We don’t believe this team is going to allow that to happen again.

Whether Lamar Jackson wins another Heisman Trophy is the last thing on any of their minds.

Ties that bound Petrino and Brohms at loose ends now

No stepping on the brakes, it’s a freight train now, the season opener only six days away for the University of Louisville football team. Against Purdue University, the Brohm brothers and company.

Bobby Petrino wishes Jeff Brohm lots of luck, just not next Saturday (Cindy Rice Shelton photo).

Jeff, Brian and Greg Brohm all former UofL players, good ones, ambitious people, wanting to prove themselves on the sidelines, eager to make names for themselves, starting at the expense of their alma mater, possibly even envisioning a return to UofL some day.

Current UofL Coach Bobby Petrino noting in his press conference on Monday that all three of them, including Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm, were guests at the wedding of his daughter Katie over the summer. Along with Poppa and Momma Brohm. Strong between the Petrinos and the Brohms, almost two decades now.

Jeff Brohm is a Purude Boilermaker for now.

Jeff, of course, was an assistant to Petrino at at Western Kentucky before becoming head coach at WKU. Making his mark there, earning a Big 10 opportunity. He knows the Petrino system as well as anyone, having lived it at least 20 hours a day, 12 months a year.

“I’m excited for Jeff … but now he’s the enemy,” said Petrino smiling. adding that Brohm went through a rigorous process of contemplating a coaching career after his NFL career was over, the long days, all the travel, the ups and downs of recruiting, and all the other responsibilities. “He called me when I went to Western Kentucky and said he had decided he wanted to be a head coach,” he said. “I know he put a lot of thought into it, and I believe he will be successful.”

Jeff is one of four family members to be a football letterwinner at Louisville, along with his father, Oscar (quarterback 1966-69), and brothers, Greg (wide receiver 1989-92) and Brian (quarterback 2004-07).

Unfortunate, perhaps, that Brohm’s first game at Purdue has to come against Louisville. Or maybe not, since he knows Petrino’s system so well. Petrino is well aware of Brohm’s proclivity for unorthodox or trick plays, relying heavily on them for his success at Western Kentucky. Petrino expects more of the same Saturday at Indianapolis.

No more of this buddy, buddy stuff, however.

*   *   *

Lamar Jackson confidence grows with maturity and stronger offensive line (Cindy Rice Shelton photo).

Lamar Jackson is ready to put the off season behind him. He’s done with all the awards banquets, and the monotony of fall football camp . Ready for some football he is.  “I was ready after the first week of practice. I’m always ready to play football,” he said.

As for being left off pre-season Heisman Trophy candidate lists, “I don’t know. They don’t come to me and talk about it. I don’t really care. I just care about my teammates and winning games.”

As for his much maligned offensive line, “They’re eager to play. They were eager to play last year but I can see a difference now. They’re much more mature now, they’re stronger and can push defensive lines back.”

As for whether he himself is more mature, “Last year they would be bringing a blitz, I would try to use my arm and try to beat the blitz. Now I can change the play and go in a whole different direction.”