Louisville has lots to fix after stretch-run collapse
Lamar Jackson's achievement as Louisville's first Heisman Trophy winner raised expectations for him to lead the Cardinals into national championship contention.
Doing so will require improvement in many areas after three straight losses took some luster off Jackson's milestone and bounced the Cardinals from title consideration.
On the cusp of the playoff discussion thanks to the mobile Jackson, No. 15 Louisville (9-4) slumped down the stretch. The nation's top offense didn't even score a touchdown in Saturday's 29-9 Citrus Bowl loss to No. 19 LSU , another troubling defeat that demonstrated the Cardinals aren't there just yet.
''We didn't finish the season the way that we should have or normally do,'' coach Bobby Petrino said. ''There's a saying that one of the greatest obstacles to being great is being good. And it's my fault. I saw us not working and practicing and having the same intensity that we needed in the last three games.''
Jackson again struggled with sacks and turnovers, a pattern that ignited debate about his Heisman prospects. The 19-year-old went on to become the award's youngest winner and collect a bunch of honors - including Associated Press Player of the Year - but he also acknowledged the need for improvement.
''There were a lot of mistakes each and every one of us made out there,'' he said. ''We've just got to come back stronger next year.''
Duplicating the things that had the Cardinals near the four-team playoff earlier in the season would be a good start.
Louisville waxed Florida State 63-20 to rise to No. 3 in September and battled then-No. 5 Clemson in a 42-36 loss , proving that it could compete with the Seminoles and Tigers in its third season of Atlantic Coast Conference play. On the other hand, the Cardinals had to work harder than expected beating underdogs such as Duke and Wake Forest.
Vulnerabilities on both sides of the ball were exposed in those games and were followed by losses to Houston , Kentucky and finally LSU - all of which broke through Louisville's offensive line and got to Jackson often.
''We had a formula that was working at the beginning of the year,'' center Tobijah Hughley said. ''Something in the middle of the season happened and we weren't doing the same, but they're going to get that back next year.''
Louisville must replace key defensive players such as lineman DeAngelo Brown, linebackers Keith Kelsey and DeVonte Fields and safety Josh Harvey-Clemons. The Cardinals also need offensive playmakers and blockers as Jackson returns from a memorable season of records, highlights and awards.
Jackson rushed for a school-record 1,571 yards and compiled 5,114 total on offense, falling 95 short of Deshaun Watson's Atlantic Coast Conference mark set last season. His 51 combined touchdowns shattered Watson's old mark, and his 30 passing TDs were just one shy of Teddy Bridgewater's program record.
Jackson was named the ACC's top player by coaches and media and received the Walter Camp and Maxwell awards before claiming the Heisman on Dec. 10. Nearly every introductory highlight included his hurdle of a Syracuse defender as he reached the end zone.
Despite those performances, the quarterback harshly criticized his play after games. He vowed to return better, an approach teammates echoed after seeing their title hopes slip away.
''We've got to finish strong and never get complacent,'' linebacker Jonathan Greenard said. ''Next year when we get all our players back, we'll be able to bounce back like we usually do.''
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