Caulton Tudor

Louisville not the lock Tar Heels fans may fear

Posted September 8

It doesn’t compute if you go entirely by Week 1 performances, but my gut keeps telling me North Carolina is in prime position to ambush No. 17 Louisville Saturday in Chapel Hill (Noon, ESPN).

Based on the Tar Heels’ leaky defensive work in a 35-30 loss last week to California and its inexperienced quarterback Ross Bowers, it makes more sense to assume 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson will have his way in Kenan Stadium.

With 378 yards passing, 107 yards rushing and a pair of touchdowns in a 35-28 win over Purdue last week in Indianapolis, Jackson began 2017 much the same way he started a year ago in dazzling early routs of Charlotte, Syracuse, Florida State and Marshall.

Those four games provided Jackson, then a sophomore, with such a big early lead in the Heisman race that late challengers DeShaun Watson (Clemson) and Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma) couldn’t close the gap.

But there were other 2016 games when Jackson wasn’t nearly so dominant, including a close call against Duke and for a while in a loss to Kentucky at regular season’s end.

Then in a 29-9 Citrus Bowl loss to LSU, Bobby Petrino’s offense was completely overwhelmed. Jackson was held to 153 yards passing and 33 yards rushing roughly two weeks after he was in Manhattan to become only the fourth ACC player ever to win the Heisman.

Obviously, Carolina doesn’t have a defensive unit that’s remotely close to LSU in terms of depth, coverage skills and raw athletic talent. And if the game against California is a true indication of what’s ahead, the loss of unit coordinator 55-year-old Gene Chizik to retirement may be of more importance to the final record than the departure of quarterback Mitch Trubisky to the NFL Chicago Bears.

But in a 24-14 loss at then-No. 7 Louisville last season, Duke’s defense was hardly hale and hardy either. The Blue Devils’ timing was good in that the Friday night game came just six days after Louisville’s taxing loss at Clemson. But simply by keeping Jackson between his offensive tackles for most the night, Duke went into the fourth quarter with a legitimate chance to win and that was with him rushing for 144 yards while Duke quarterback Daniel Jones was held to less than 130 yards passing.

Whether or not Carolina’s current defensive chief John Papuchis has devised a strategy to slow Jackson won’t be known until Saturday, but Larry Fedora’s program is beginning to sorely need a statement game. The loss to Cal came after late-season losses to Duke, NC State and Stanford in 2016.

Preseason logic had it that the defense, with seven returning starters and at least three all-star candidates, would be strong enough to provide some cushion for the rebuilt offense to find its footing. That changed immediately when Cal, an 11-point underdog, put up such gaudy stats in the opener.

After that opener, Fedora cited offensive turnovers as a primary contributing factor, but also said the defense surrendered “catastrophic plays.”

“There were a lot of times that we played really good defense … but then we gave up those big plays. I was concerned about the reasons behind those breakdowns,” Fedora said.

And while it will be a very important day for Fedora and Heels, it’ll be just as important for Jackson, Petrino and the Cardinals. With No. 5 Oklahoma playing a primetime Saturday game at No. 2 Ohio State, the Heisman spotlight will be focused on Sooner quarterback Mayfield and the Buckeyes’ hopeful J.T. Barrett.

There’s been only one two-time Heisman winner – Ohio State’s Archie Griffin in 1974 and ’75 – but Jackson certainly can’t be ruled out of being the second.

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