Louisville is no stranger to Thursday night football, and has used the weekday games to help propel the program onto the national scene. There have been some of those Thursday night games that have had major implications to the Cards post season. This week marks the ten year anniversary of the Thursday night Jeremy Ito kicked a 28-yard field goal with 13 seconds left to lift No. 15 Rutgers to a 28-25 Big East Conference victory over No. 3 Louisville. That loss most would argue knocked Louisville out of their first chance to play for a National Championship. You can bet that Coach Petrino and Louisville fans have thought about that night many times. With another big Thursday night game looming it to could have major implications on the Cardinals post season playoff hopes.
On Thursday night Louisville will visit Houston to play the Cougars in what should be a very competitive game. This will be the 17th meeting between these teams with the series tied at 8-8. The Houston Cougars are 8-2 (5-2) this season after beating Tulane by a score of 30-18 in their last game. Houston hasn’t been the team that most expected them to be this season after their big win over Oklahoma but make no mistake about it they are very good. Last year Houston’s season was highlighted by their big win against the Cardinals in Louisville. This game has been labeled as their Super Bowl by several pundits.
With Houston it starts at the top with their head Coach Tom Herman and his staff. Last season I covered the game between Louisville and Houston and spent some time observing the Houston side line. They have a very young and energetic staff and that funnels down through their team. They have struggled at times this season but that competitiveness has been their one constant. The Cougars have always been known for their explosive offenses and that legacy has only improved with Herman. Offensively the Cougars are going to come from all directions and are averaging 37.6 points per game with 168.6 rushing yards and 283.8 passing yards per game. They have scored 26 touchdowns on the ground and 17 touchdowns through the air.
Leading this Cougar offense is a very athletic and talented QB Greg Ward Jr. Ward is completing 68.5% of his passes for 2608 yards, 16 touchdowns, and 8 interception this season. He leads the Cougars rushing attack with 429 yards and 9 touchdowns. Houston also features two very solid RB’s in Duke Catalon (411 yards, 2 touchdowns), and Dillon Birden (277 yards, 6 touchdowns). Ward’s favorite targets through the air are WR’s Linell Bonner (774 yards, 2 touchdowns), Chance Allen (637 yards, 3 touchdowns), and Steven Dunbar (585 yards, 5 touchdowns). One of Herman’s best attributes is how he utilizes his talent in his spread offense and this group has embraced that.
Trying to stop Houston’s very aggressive style of offense is a Louisville defense that has been very consistent this season. Defensively, the Cardinals have moved up to sixth in the country in rushing defense, yielding only 102.7 yards per game and are tied (Alabama, Ohio State and Michigan) for the national lead by allowing just three rushing touchdowns all season. Louisville is also #6 in 3rd down conversion defense, #7 in yards allowed per pass attempt and #10 in sack yards. Louisville hasn’t permitted a touchdown on the ground in the last 22 quarters (since the second stanza versus Clemson.) They are ranked #6 in total defense. There have been different guys stepping up each week on this defense. Keith Kelsey has led the Louisville defense with 68 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and 1 sack, while Stacy Thomas has added 58 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, and 1 interception. Last week DeVonte Fields got back to his dominating ways. This is a promising sign as the Cardinals are going to need him down the stretch.
Lamar Jackson got his first college start against the Houston Cougars last season but ended up being replaced by Kyle Bolin after he and the offense struggled. This time around things are a little different. Louisville has the #1 scoring offense averaging 49.6 points per game with 270 rushing yards and 313.2 passing yards per game. Jackson is completing 58.6% of his passes for 2898 yards, 27 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions for Louisville. Jackson has added 1334 yards and 19 touchdowns on the ground. This Louisville offense has many weapons and can attack on every level. Houston ranks #41 in the country in passing yards allowed. Look for the Cardinals WR’s to play a big role in the game on Thursday night. Leading this group is four guys well over 400 yards in receiving James Quick (608 yards, 6 touchdowns), Jamari Staples (585 yards, 2 touchdowns), Cole Hikutini (526 yards, 6 touchdowns), and Jaylen Smith (487 yards, 6 touchdowns).
Speaking of the Houston defense they are giving up 21.3 points per game with 92.8 rushing yards and 210.5 passing yards per game. The backbone of this defense is the defensive line and their line-backers. Up front they have maybe one of the best interior lineman in the country in Ed Oliver who has 55 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, and 3 sacks. He is tied for 6th in the country in tackles for loss per game. LB Matthew Adams has 55 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, and 1 sack. While LB Steven Taylor has 50 tackles, and 6 sacks. Houston’s defensive front really has some nice size and these guys get to the ball. With Louisville needing to attack their weak secondary it will be a busy night for the Cards offensive line giving Jackson time to do so.
To say I’m a bit nervous about this Thursday night game would be an understatement. I know a playoff spot is pretty much still a long shot at this point but I really would like to see the Cardinals compete for that spot all the way to the end. A loss to Houston would completely derail any outside shot at playing for a National Title and send the Cardinals plummeting down in the polls. This game will be Houston’s BCS Bowl game. They are looking to make a late season statement themselves and perhaps looking for a bit of redemption after losing a few games. I think that Houston will ride the emotion of their crowd and the hype surrounding this game. I look for them to keep it close and for this game to be a battle. But ultimately big games are decided by great players. I think our O’s are much better than their X’s, and we have the best offensive player in college football on our sideline. Big Thursday night games have served as the ultimate proving ground for Louisville Football. It’s time to show the nation once again that we belong. Go Cards!