Jackson, Louisville try to rebound from late-season collapse
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) Louisville has Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson and the Cardinals are motivated to build on their best Atlantic Coast Conference finish.
Rebounding from the stretch-run meltdown that followed the Cardinals' 9-1 start last year also provides incentive to close the deal.
''You can be motivated by your successes or be motivated by your failures,'' coach Bobby Petrino said of moving past the three-game slide that ended last season.
''The one thing you need to keep in mind is that with all the great things we did and the success we had,'' the coach said, ''we have to address why we didn't succeed, learn from it and get to work.''
With Jackson eager to follow up his stellar season and a veteran defense, the Cardinals (9-4, 7-1 ACC) believe they have the components to make another run at the Atlantic Division title after tying with Clemson. (The Tigers earned the tiebreaker with a 42-36 win over the Cardinals.)
Leading the way is Jackson, who believes winning the ACC is only the start for Louisville.
''A national championship, that's what I want,'' said Jackson, whose numerous school records included 3,543 yards passing, 1,571 rushing and 51 combined touchdowns.
''We need to get it,'' Jackson said. ''We've got the team to do it, too.''
Eight pounds of muscle have bulked Jackson up to 212 as he works more under center this season. The youngest Heisman recipient shuns talk of becoming only the second trophy winner after Archie Griffin (1974,'75), smiling mostly about winning more games.
Jackson's prospects depend on finding new targets after losing his top three receivers from last season. Running back Jaylen Smith (382 yards rushing, 8 TDs) returns for a Cardinals backfield needing to build depth.
Louisville's offensive line meanwhile must replace three starters and bounce back from a collapse in which it yielded 22 of its 46 sacks in the final three games.
''We weren't consistent,'' junior tackle Lukayus McNeil said of the unit's struggles. ''We're focused on improving that this year.''
Nine defensive starters return including cornerback Jaire Alexander, whose five interceptions led Louisville. Making big plays instead of allowing them, as the Cardinals did late last season, is a priority.
Other things to look for from Louisville this season:
TRADING PLACES: Louisville and Mississippi State essentially swapped defensive coordinators, with Peter Sirmon taking over the Cardinals while Todd Grantham is in Starkville with the Bulldogs. Sirmon's resume' includes stints at Power Five schools such as USC, Washington, Tennessee and Oregon. That background helps Sirmon as he inherits a unit that ranked 14th nationally last season and allowed 322.2 yards per contest.
UTILITY PLAYER: Not long ago, Reggie Bonnafon was showing his mobility as the Cardinals' QB before Jackson came along the next year. The Louisville native moved to receiver last season and caught 13 passes for 159 yards and five TDs, but starts over this fall at running back. Petrino insists that might be Bonnafon's natural position and vows to get the ball in the senior's hands a lot more than before.
EXCUSE THE MESS: The Cardinals will play under a backdrop of construction as the north end zone of Papa John's Cardinal Stadium is enclosed. The $63 million renovation is scheduled for completion by next season and will expand seating capacity by 10,000 to 65,000.
KEY GAMES: A trio of challenges begins Sept. 2 against Purdue and new coach Jeff Brohm, a former Cardinals QB and assistant. Consecutive ACC games follow at North Carolina (Sept. 9) before Louisville hosts a showdown against defending national champion Clemson the next week. A visit to conference favorite Florida State (Oct. 21) could determine whether Louisville contends for the Atlantic Division title.
PREDICTION: The schedule gives the Cardinals a chance to match last year's win total. But they again must hurdle Clemson and FSU in the division, a task that requires reducing turnovers, sacks and defensive breakdowns. Not to mention, using Jackson as often as possible - again.
SEASON OPENER: Louisville faces Big Ten Conference Purdue on Sept. 2 in Indianapolis.
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