7:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Florida State -3.5
A Top 25 Clash kicks off this weekend of College Football, as the second-ranked Florida State Seminoles travel to Louisville to face the newly-minted twenty-fifth-ranked Cardinals on Thursday Night Football. With the release of the first annual College Football Playoff Rankings, the Seminoles (7-0, 4-0 in ACC) can be breathe easy knowing that as long as they remain undefeated they should sit comfortably in one of those four playoff spots. However, that can prove to be easier said than done as Jimbo Fisher’s charges head into the raucous environment of Papa Johns Stadium tonight. While sporting an unblemished resume’, this team hasn’t been as dominant as they were on their way to a BCS National Championship in 2013, experiencing a number of close calls that nearly derailed their title defense. First, Oklahoma State gave Florida State everything they could handle on a neutral field, where Jameis Winston and Co. struggled to find consistency throughout the first half of a narrow 37-31 victory. Then, three weeks later with the reigning Heisman suspended, the ‘Noles were very nearly upset by Clemson, before pulling out a miraculous 23-17 win in overtime. And finally, two weeks ago when fifth-ranked Notre Dame came to Tallahassee, it was a controversial late Offensive Pass Interference Penalty that ultimately secured a 31-27 triumph. The point here folks, is that with the exception of blowout victories over the likes The Citadel (37-12) and Wake Forest (43-3), this team has seen their victories decided by just 9.8 points per game.
So could it be a case of all the recent controversy that has occurred off the field in Tallahassee finally taking it’s toll on the Seminoles? Winston alone has been at the eye of the storm, with a litany of issues stemming back to the 2013 Rape Investigation that nearly cost him the Heisman, to the ridiculous behavior that caused Fisher to finally suspend him for the showdown with Clemson, and his part in the current autographed merchandise saga that has swept through College Football of late. To his credit though, the big Sophomore hasn’t let those things deter his play on the field, showing an uncanny ability to block out all the noise swirling around him; Winston has completed 70.6% of his passes for 1,878 yards thus far (8.9 yards/attempt), with thirteen touchdowns and six interceptions, while rushing for a pair of scores to boot. Many of those numbers are down, due in large part to the exodus of so many skill position players from last year’s group, but his poise in the pocket has been erratic at best, particularly against the blitz; Winston completed 60.4% of his passes when blitzed in 2013, but has regressed to 37.3% in 2014. That didn’t make much of a difference against the Irish, as he went toe-to-toe with Everette Golson in a modern classic; Winston completed 23-of-31 passes for 273 yards, two touchdowns and an interception en route to rallying back from a 17-10 halftime deficit. Another big component of their success that night, tailback Karlos Williams, could be unavailable for tonight’s matchup with Louisville, due to the Tailback being investigated on charges of Domestic Battery. Fisher has yet to announce the Senior’s availability, but his absence would be another blow to this unit; Williams has racked up 513 total yards from scrimmage this season, and 52 yards on ten touches including a pair of late touchdowns against Notre Dame. And though he hasn’t had a high volume of touches, he has made his opportunities count, with 21.3% of his touches resulting in touchdowns.
On the opposite side of the ball, the Seminoles have also been a bit disappointing, in large part tot eh tremendous expectations bred from last year’s championship run. That’s not to say that these kids haven’t played well, because they have, but it’s the unrealistic standards that they’ve had to aspire to that have painted them in this light. Through seven games, Florida State has allowed 18.9 points (14th overall) on 374.4 yards, including 227.9 through the air and another 146.6 on the ground. Now compare that to last year’s defense which limited the opposition to a mere 12.1 points (1st overall) on 281.4 total yards, and you can see the reason for criticism. Fisher’s defense has been gashed for 400+ yards on four occasions this season, including four of the past five outings, including 520 yards against the likes of North Carolina State. In fact, apart from relegating lowly Wake Forest to a scant 126 yards, the ‘Noles have relinquished a very un-Seminole-like 452.3 yards over the last five contests. Ironically, it’s been the pass defense that has been troublesome thus far; opposing Quarterbacks have completed 59.1% of their attempts for an average of 227.9 yards this term, with that number inflating to 308.5 yards in five of their last six outings. Their biggest problem has been the fact that they simply haven’t been able to get off the field on Third Down with an regularity; Florida State has permitted their opponents to convert on Third Down 43.0% of the time. The savior however, has been turnovers, which this unit has been very adept at forcing of late; Defensive Coordinator Jeremy Pruitt’s charges have forced thirteen turnovers, with eight coming over the last three games.
Meanwhile, with Charlie Strong off to Austin, Louisville (6-2, 4-2 in ACC) welcomed back Bobby Petrino, who took the program to unmatched heights of success in his four-year stint from 2003 to 2006. The previous Petrino Era was indeed good for the Cardinals; the oft-traveled Head Coach led them to a a 47-11 record (.810 win percentage), along with four consecutive Bowl Games, including a 24-13 triumph in the 2006 Orange Bowl. Fast-forward eight years and the Cardinals are now in the ACC, where they have adjusted quite well to life in a major conference. Of their six conference matchups, Louisville’s two losses have come by a scant total of eight points. Behind the best defense in the country not residing in the SEC, and a physical running game, Petrino has this program on the fast track to success in their third different conference in as many years. After a heart-breaking loss at Clemson (23-17), the Cards promptly rebounded at home against North Carolina State (30-18), establishing a 17-6 halftime lead of which they would never relinquish.
Carrying on from the previous regime, Louisville has been successful in the ACC thanks in large part to the play of their defense, which once again ranks towards the summit in many categories nationally. Through eight games, the Cardinals have allowed just 13.0 points (3rd overall) on an FBS-best 245.1 yards per game, including 176.4 yards versus the pass, and a mere 68.8 versus the rush (1st overall). Furthermore, this defense is one of only three unit in the FBS to have yet to allow more than 23 points in a game this season, with the other two being Alabama and Ole Miss. Opposing Quarterbacks have struggled mightily against these kids, completing just 54.0% of their attempts, while posting the lowest Total QBR in the country (14.7). In fact, North Carolina State’s Jacoby Brisset became the first Quarterback to throw for more than 200 yards against Louisville since September 9th. Sacks and interceptions has been this group’s calling card, with Petrino’s defense racking up a healthy twenty-eight sacks and fifteen interceptions (2nd overall). Eleven different Cardinals have tallied a sack, with five recording at least three, led by Defensive End Lorenzo Mauldin (six), adding to his total of twenty since 2012. Junior Safety James Sample leads this opportunistic defense with three interceptions in first year as a starter, feasting upon the relentless pressure caused by his teammates. And where their counterparts have struggled on Third Down thus far, the Cardinals have yielded a mere 24.0% conversion rate, second-best in the country.
However, it’s been a different story on the opposite side of the ball, where the Cardinals are still very much a work in progress. Petrino is renowned as one of the greatest offensive minds in College Football, and eventually he will turn this group into a fine-tuned machine, but in the present this unit leaves a lot to be desired. Through eight contests, Louisville has averaged 27.4 points (81st overall) on 370.6 yards of total offense, including 225.8 via the pass, and another 144.9 via the rush. The ground game has been solid, with the triumvirate of Dominique Brown, Michael Dyer, and Brandon Radcliff accounting for 1,001 yards thus far. After missing four of the first seven games due to injury, Dyer was called upon for his first start last week against the Wolfpack, rushing for 173 yards and a score on 24 carries. You can expect the Backfield to see plenty of action tonight, as Petrino will try to keep the Seminoles’ honest against the pass, for sophomore Quarterback Will Gardner hasn’t been very consistent this season. In replacing Teddy Bridgewater, Gardner had huge shoes to fill, and in his first term as the starter has experienced the requisite growing pains under Center; the big, prototypical pocket passer has completed just 57.3% of his attempts for 1,151 yards (7.0 yards/attempt), eleven touchdowns and two interceptions. After missing back-to-back games earlier this month with a leg injury, Gardner returned to nearly upset Clemson, advancing all the way their eight-yard line with less than a minute remaining, only to see his final attempt batted down at the line of scrimmage in the 23-17 defeat. A week later, he went 21-of-36 for 203 yards and a pair of scores in a 30-18 victory at home against NC State. He should receive a plenty of help from DeVante Parker, who made his first start last week returning from a toe injury that had previously sidelined him all season, to haul in nine passes for 132 yards last week. Parker led the Cardinals with 55 catches for 885 yards (16.1 yards/catch) and twelve touchdowns, and has totaled 28 throughout his career.