The long national nightmare is over, folks. College football is back. This season on The Crunch Zone, I will be providing a weekly “Keys to the Game” post, along with some other angles and players I will be keeping an eye on in our upcoming match-up.
This year, instead of opening with a traditional power like Notre Dame or Auburn, we’re starting the season with a relatively unknown upstart program from down south who’ve decided to pick up football. In all seriousness, this is an incredible opening game against as good an opponent as one can hope for. I am pumped the Cards are getting an opportunity like this. So what does Louisville need to do to stay in this game, and ultimately give themselves a shot at victory? Without further ado…
KEYS TO THE GAME
1. Puma needs to get settled in early: The first game as a starter at the Power 5 level is a big moment for anybody. The fact that Puma Pass is playing Alabama in his first start is a monumental challenge. It’s also a big opportunity. Despite some mixed reports, Bobby Petrino seems to really like what he has in Puma. He looked sharp in limited (albeit inconsequential) action last season, and his receivers have raved about the touch and catchability of his throws. If Louisville is going to have a chance at this upset, Puma has to get it going early. Alabama appears to be most vulnerable in the secondary, and Puma needs to take advantage of that fact. A couple of short to intermediate completions on the first series could work wonders for the young man’s confidence. On the season, I expect our running game to be utilized heavily and oftentimes be the focal point of the offense, but leaning on it against the Tide is a fool’s errand. For the Cards to stay in this game, Puma has to be the quarterback Bobby thinks he is. (Side note: I think he’s that quarterback too)
2. The team needs to start fast: This point is sort of synonymous with the first. I am 95% sure that no matter who wins the coin toss, the Cards will end up with the ball first. While points would be ideal, if the Cards can manage a few first downs, if the offensive line can establish themselves against the Bama front, and if, as mentioned, Puma can get settled in, that can do wonders for the team’s confidence. Sometimes David just needs to see Goliath bleed. Same for the defense. I expect Jalen Hurts will be the starter, but we will ultimately see both quarterbacks. Generally speaking, he is a good steward of the offense and fits Saban’s philosophy…meaning he generally takes care of the ball, eats clock, and marches down the field. Bama has a stable of elite backs, led by Kentucky native Damian Harris and former #1 overall recruit Najee Harris. While I like our personnel in the front seven this season, this will be a serious test for this unit. Bama’s line is big and very talented. An early three and out or two could go a long way for this unit’s mentality.
3. Exploit our advantage: It’s been well documented this summer, but for good reason. Louisville’s best unit is our receiving corps (followed closely by the offensive line, in my opinion), and Alabama’s most likely weak spot is their defensive backfield. This is, of course, all relative, as Bama replaces their departing starters with highly touted recruits across the board, and Deionte Thompson actually got the starting nod in the playoff last year. But they don’t have a ton of reps, and they definitely don’t have a ton of reps together, which is just as important. Louisville’s receivers are big, fast, talented, and experienced. Dez Fitzpatrick, Jaylen Smith, and Seth Dawkins are a big time trio. We have to take advantage. While the short to intermediate passing game will absolutely be key to maintaining possession and moving the chains, we don’t win this game without chunk plays. Puma needs to take the top off of the Tide defense if the Cards are going to have a shot.
4. TAKE CARE OF THE BISCUIT: This one is simple. If we are going to beat Alabama, we absolutely cannot turn the ball over. Interceptions and fumbles, especially on our side of the ball, will absolutely drown us. On the flip side, we will need to force Alabama into a few mistakes of their own. This is a big reason I would rather see a risk/reward guy like Tua Tagavailoa behind center. He might kill you through the air, but he will usually give you a couple of chances to pick him off. More so than Hurts, at least.
5. Avoid the “Quicksand”: Ah, the wise words of Shane Falco (The Replacements is an underrated sports movie, dammit. Don’t you dare point out that the Sentinels only had 2 assistant coaches and for some reason the cheerleaders also had to be replaced when the team went on strike. Don’t you dare) For the unfortunate ones among you who have not seen the movie, Keanu’s Shane Falco refers to “quicksand”…when you make one mistake on the field, that turns into another, then another, until you feel like you’re sinking. And the harder you struggle and try to get out, the deeper you sink. This happens all the time, and with a young QB and a juggernaut of an opponent, it can happen quickly. The Cards can’t compound mistakes. If Puma throws a pick on the first series, he can’t come back out and force the issue on the next series. Composure is the key. Avoid the quicksand. (Keanu Reeves is a treasure. This is non-negotiable.)
WHO/WHAT BISCUIT’S WATCHING
-You all know me. I will be focusing on the trenches. The hogs have to consistently move Raekwon Davis, Isaiah Buggs, and the rest of that Bama defensive front, and keep Pass clean. Bobby will be looking for some quick hits early to get everybody comfortable. Easy throws and shorter drops. But eventually we are going to need 3-4 seconds of a clean pocket. Stay tuned.
-Additionally, I think there’s going to be an X factor. I know how excited everybody got watching Rondale Moore light it up for Purdue on Thursday. It’s not fair to expect that out of anybody on our roster, but if there is a candidate for a similar breakout, it has to be Tutu Atwell. The coaching staff has been impressed with him all camp, and it feels like he is likely to see a lot of the field tomorrow. I’m not sure if he will factor much tomorrow, but freshman RB Javian Hawkins will be a factor this season. Bet on it.
-As I have stated many times this summer, I like our defensive 2-deep more right now than I did at any point last season, for multiple reasons. The personnel fits the scheme far better, we were injury riddled and rudderless last season, and we have several talented transfers who are going to see the field for the first time against Alabama. I will be keeping a close eye on Rodjay Burns, PJ Mbanasor, Boosie Whitlow, and jucos Mike Boykin and Jared Goldwire. How they incorporate into Brian Van Gorder’s defense is going to be a major early season storyline.
-Micky Crum. Because eventually Joe Kelly will be right about him.
-A lot has been made of the transition from Lamar Jackson to a more traditional pocket QB in Puma Pass. Most expect to see a triumphant return to Bobby 1.0. While I share the sentiment, and believe the Cards could have a more consistent and reliable offense under Puma, Louisville just lost its most dynamic talent ever, and the new QB has no starts under his belt. I am optimistic as anybody, I just caution everybody not to jump to conclusions after this game. Bama is not a normal opponent. That being said, I really like what I have seen from Puma, and feel we will naturally be far less reliant on the QB position this season. To take this further, there is a decent chance we won’t know what we have with this team until week 4. The Bama, Indiana St, and Western games may not tell us much (or they might, we will see). Don’t overreact. Unless we beat Bama. Then you can let your mind run wild.
I will eat nearly three pounds of ribeye. Oh, the GAME. Right…
The Cards are going to roll into Orlando with far more juice than most pundits expect. UofL fights the good fight, and the game is close going into second half, probably into the 4th quarter. But in the end, Bama’s pedigree shows. A late TD makes this one look less close than it actually is. Cards turn some heads.
Alabama 34 – Louisville 23
(I hope I’m wrong)
Enjoy tomorrow, Cards fans. This is the game we’ve been waiting on for decades. An opener against the defending national champs. Soak it in.
Go Cards. Beat Bama.