Spread: Florida State -6.5
How to Watch / Listen: 3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2 / ESPNU, 790AM
Last Time: In one of their closest games in 2017, Louisville had a stellar day on the ground, and did surprisingly well on defense. The Cards ran for 293 yards (Lamar Jackson accounting for 178 of them) and forced three turnovers, including a fumble inside Louisville territory late in the game. Lamar Jackson would lead the Cardinals to a game winning drive, sealed with a 34-yard field goal from Blanton Creque. The Cards would pull out a 31-28 win in Tallahassee, their first at Doak Campbell Stadium since 1952.
Florida State leads the all-time series 14-4. Since 2000, the series between the Seminoles and Cardinals is tied at 3-3.
The State of the Florida State Seminoles
Since that late October clash, the Seminoles have had a lot going on. They went on to finish the 2017 regular season with a 6-6 record, saved by a rescheduled game against Louisiana-Monroe in the last minute. However, then head coach Jimbo Fisher resigned to take the vacant position at Texas A&M.
That left the door open for Willie Taggart to come in and become Florida State’s next head coach. Taggart has literally been around the country in recent years, getting his head coaching start at his alma mater (Western Kentucky). He led the Hilltoppers to their first bowl game at the FBS level before taking over at South Florida. Taggart turned around the USF program and delivered their first 10-win season in school history, then coached the 2017 season at Oregon before leaving for Florida State.
Florida State enters tomorrow’s game with an even 2-2 record, with wins against Northern Illinois and a come-from-behind win against FCS Samford. Both of their losses have been by 20+ points this season, dropping the opener to Virginia Tech (24-3) and a road game at Syracuse (30-7).
Key Players: QB DeAndre Francois, WR Nyqwan Murray, DE Brian Burns
One of the most notable changes from last year’s matchup to this year (aside from the coaching change) is that quarterback DeAndre Francois will be back. Many know him as the starter during Louisville’s memorable 2016 win over them, but he did have a fantastic finish to that season. Francois finished his freshman season with 20 touchdowns and seven interceptions, capped off with throwing the game-winning touchdown against Michigan in the Orange Bowl.
Francois was primed for a breakout 2017 season, but a torn ACL in their opener against Alabama derailed any chance of that. And so, too, did Florida State’s season for the most part. Francois is back for this game, and he is still trying to find a rhythm in Taggart’s up-tempo offense. He’s upped his accuracy to 63.5% through four games, but has a 3:5 TD-INT ratio against FBS competition. That may not mean much against a Louisville defense that has had plenty of issues forcing turnovers or stopping opponents in recent weeks, but it’ll be something to keep an eye on.
Fortunately for Francois, he has an experienced receiver in senior Nyqwan Murray. The FSU offense is focused around Francois, Murray and Tamorion Terry, as well as their talented running back duo in Cam Akers and Jacques Patrick. In Taggart’s system, they tend to use Akers and Patrick in power running plays. While their running game hasn’t been successful so far (Florida State is ranked 121st in rushing offense, averaging 102.75 yards per game), Murray changes the offense for them because he has the speed to take a bubble screen or jet sweep for a big play. He can also stretch the field vertically, if Francois can get the deep ball to work in this game.
On defense, Florida State has had a lot of great playmakers in the secondary and defensive line. Brian Burns looks to be the guy for the Seminoles this season. He is somewhat undersized as a pass rusher (listed at 6’5″, 235 pounds), but he makes up for it with his combination of length and quickness, especially in his first step. He leads the team in sacks (3.5), and could potentially be a high draft pick in the 2019 NFL class.
QB Controversy in Louisville
No matter how much I write about Florida State’s new look under Willie Taggart, or how important of a recruiting weekend it is for Louisville, the main storyline for the Louisville offense is still the same. Can they find somebody that can get in a rhythm at quarterback? After another lackluster offensive performance at Virginia last weekend, the Cardinals’ offense is at a crossroads with the position. They absolutely need one of Puma Pass, Malik Cunningham or even Jordan Travis to break through and become the guy for the offense. Getting the quarterback spot right will set the tone for the rest of the team, and that includes the running back spot that also hasn’t settled into a permanent rotation.
If Louisville’s offense is going to score points, it will have to be through the air. Florida State ranks tenth in the FBS in rushing defense (allowing 97.5 yards per game). Given Louisville’s struggles with reliably running the ball and constant rotation of backs, it’s hard to be optimistic in that matchup.
That places more emphasis on Louisville’s wide receivers winning their matchups against Florida State’s secondary. Jaylen Smith and Dez Fitzpatrick both have to win against the likes of Levonta Taylor and Kyle Meyers, so that whoever starts at QB can make the throws and give Louisville’s offense some confidence.
Louisville’s season may very well be on the line in the next two games. If Louisville cannot get their offense in sync early and make plays, then it may not bode well in their next game against Georgia Tech, as well as the rest of the season.
Offensive Line Troubles
To put it nicely, both Louisville and Florida State’s offensive lines haven’t played well up to this point. And it could very well boil down to which team can exert its will in the trenches. Or, more or less, which offensive line makes the least amount of mistakes.
For a Louisville team that has struggled to set the edge and make plays against the run, this is a game where they can make up lost ground and get some confidence. The Seminoles rank 111th in sacks allowed and 125th in turnover margin. It’s a matchup that presents itself as similar to their game against Western Kentucky, except that FSU (obviously) has better prospects and overall talent. With Jon Greenard still out, Jarrett Jackson and G.G. Robinson both have to be the difference makers.
The same can be said for Florida State. The Seminoles can win their matchup against a line that is 100th in sacks allowed, and an offense that is sitting at a -5 turnover margin. Fortunately for Florida State, they have a proven playmaker in Brian Burns, someone that can beat Louisville’s tackles on the edge. One matchup I am interested in seeing unfold is Mekhi Becton v. Brian Burns. It’ll be a tough test for Burns, who will be giving up at least 100 pounds to the 6’7″, 360 lb. offensive tackle. But Burns’ speed will also challenge Becton.
Turnover Battle & Field Position
I mentioned that whoever makes the least amount of mistakes will win this game. It’s admittedly cliche to say, but it’s the truth. Both teams are among the worst in the FBS in terms of turnover margin, so Florida State and Louisville need to take care of the ball and manage their offense.
Especially important in this area is field position. If either team commits turnovers in their own territory, that will create an easy opportunity for points. It would especially be helpful for Louisville to force the Seminoles into mistakes, and create a short field for their offense. Rodjay Burns has been Louisville’s big playmaker on defense in lieu of Greenard’s absence, and will be looking to carry his momentum in this game. With linebacker Dorian Etheridge also expected to return, it will be a huge boost for Louisville’s front seven.
However, if Louisville has turnover problems in their own territory, that could lead to Florida State scoring and putting them in a hole they cannot climb out of. They absolutely must win the turnover battle in this game.