It is that time of year again… we’ve made it through another sports dry spell and now are one day away from the start of another College Football season. There are several intriguing match-ups to open the regular season but none more than the Cardinals and Boilermakers. There is not much history between these programs and the only time they played back in 1987 the game ended in a 22-22 tie. But there is a lot of history between the men who will be leading their teams into battle on Saturday.
During their three seasons together Jeff, Greg, Brian and Coach Petrino led the Louisville program to 32 wins, Liberty Bowl win, Orange Bowl Championship, Conference USA and Big East championship and twice finished in the Associated Press top 10. And by popular opinion were a field goal away from a possible National Championship. There isn’t anyone who has had a bigger impact on the rise of the Louisville football program than Coach Petrino and the Brohms and now they will be on opposite sidelines as the Cardinals open the 2017-18 College Football season.
For Coach Petrino and his Cardinals some of the faces in the starting roles will be different but much will remain the same. The Cardinal’s lose three offensive linemen as well as its leading rusher and top-three receivers from last season but Lamar Jackson is back after a season in which he produced 51 touchdowns. Last season Jackson’s first instinct was to put this offense on his back. After another off season to learn the playbook we will see him utilize the guys around him more on Saturday. There is a lot of talented players on the offensive side of the ball for the Cardinals who are ready to step up in those roles left behind last season.
Proven Veteran Reggie Bonnafon will give the Cardinals a more versatile and athletic look in the backfield as the #1 running back. In 33 career games, Bonnafon has totaled 346 yards on the ground and five touchdowns his best season coming in 2015 when he ran for 175 yards. I look for him to be highly effective in helping this team move the ball down the field. He and RB Jeremy Smith will be a great one/two punch. Smith is coming off his best season. He was third on the team last year in rushing with a career-high 382 yards and eight touchdowns. We should see a steady workload for both guys on Saturday.
There is a lot of speed, talent and versatility at the wide receiver spot for the Cardinals. During the season I think you will see several different guys share the bulk of the load but I look for wide receiver Jaylen Smith and wide receiver Seth Dawkins to emerge as go to guys for this unit. Smith, a rising junior, finished third in the nation in yards per reception at 22.2 yards. He has big play ability and had had three touchdown receptions for over 50 yards last season. Dawkins also displayed big-play potential last season catching 11 passes for 191 yards and one score. He caught at least one pass in eight games, and ended the year with six receptions for 85 yards in the Cardinals final three games.
For the fifth time in seven years under the offensive prowess of head coach Bobby Petrino, the Cardinals ended last season ranked in the top 10 nationally in total offense. Louisville finished third in the country in offense, averaging 532.7 yards per game. On Saturday Purdue will have a tall task ahead of them stopping this Louisville attack. Purdue was 117th in the country last year, allowing 38.3 points per game. Purdue’s co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Nick Holt served as the defensive coordinator for Coach Petrino at Western Kentucky in 2013. He will have a general idea on what to expect from the Louisville attack and does have some key guys returning to work with.
Holt teaches an aggressive style attack and prefers speed and athleticism over size. This Purdue defense is in a bit of rebuild mold but do have some key guys returning on all three levels. Linebacker Markus Bailey returns after 97 tackles last season, defensive lineman Gelen Robinson had five sacks and corner Josh Hayes had one interception. Trying to patch together a defensive unit Holt will have the flexibility to cater his scheme to fit his personnel. I think they will be able to play tough against the Louisville run game but their inexperienced secondary will struggle to stop an attack that will come on all levels. The Purdue defense will play hard but it could be a long day for them.
On offense, the Purdue Boilermakers have nowhere to go but up and they now have a coaching staff who can take them there. Jeff Brohm is widely regarded as one of the most innovative offensive masterminds in college football. His offenses at Western ended up #4 in 2014, #9 in 2015, and #5 in 2016. It didn’t take him long to get things moving forward down in Bowling Green and it won’t take him long in West Lafayette.
Purdue returns quarterback David Blough, who had 3,300 passing yards and 25 touchdowns. He has a decent cannon but it’s a loose one with 21 interceptions. He’ll have to cut down on those numbers to be effective this season for Brohm. The Boilermakers really lack experience at the wide receiver spot but do return a running back tandem of Markell Jones (321 carries, 1,491 yards, 14 TDs career) and Brian Lankford-Johnson (48 carries, 314 yards, 4 TDs career). They are Big Ten style bruisers and I expect them to get a lot of action on Saturday. Coach Brohm has some tools to work with but for Purdue to be able to move the ball effectively against a stiff Louisville defensive front they’ll have to get something from their offensive line. Purdue’s left tackle redshirt freshman Grant Hermanns and right tackle graduate transfer David Steinmetz will be making their very first FBS starts.
Coach Peter Sirmon will make his debut on Saturday as Louisville’s new defensive head man. His first task will be figuring out a way to stop the creative mind of Jeff Brohm. Sirmon’s defense will face an attack that they really won’t know much about heading in. That matters but it won’t matter near as much as it has in years past. Coach Sirmon believes in defensive principles where players attack rather than read and react. He will have his guys flying to the ball no matter where Brohm tries to move it. I’m looking forward to this battle. The Cardinals have 9 players returning on the defensive side of the football including all-ACC cornerback Jaire Alexander, third-team all-ACC offense tackle Geron Christian and safety Chucky Williams. These guys along with linebacker Stacy Thomas (85 tackles last season), and defensive end James Hearns (8 sacks last season) will be big on Saturday. The Louisville defense was 31st in the country last year, allowing 23.8 points per game.
I’m really looking forward to the game, and think we could see a back and forth contest for a bit. First game jitters will play a part in that on Louisville’s end. On Purdue’s end, they have more talent than what most folks are giving them credit for. Plus, they have a good coach. They could keep it close for a while but I don’t think Purdue has any chance of winning this game. At the end of the day the emotions will settle in and Lamar Jackson and the Cardinals defense will be too much for the rebuilding Boilermakers to handle. When the game reaches the fourth quarter the Boilers time will be UP.
Enjoy the game folks and GO CARDS!