Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Spread: Louisville -2, O/U 62.5 (Bovada)
Heading into the game with a 1-4 record, Louisville rebounded in a big way against Florida State with a 48-16 victory. Malik Cunningham completed 16-of-24 passes for 278 yards and two touchdowns, while Javian Hawkins added 178 yards and three touchdowns on the ground. The Cardinals racked up 569 total yards on offense, while its defense held FSU to 406 yard which included 12 pass breakups and holding the Seminoles to 14-of-41 passing.
Florida State leads the all-time series 16-5. Louisville has won three of the last five meetings between the two schools.
2021 Florida State Seminoles at a Glance
Year two of the Mike Norvell era has not gone as planned for Florida State. After going 3-6 in year one, the Seminoles dropped their first three games of the season against Notre Dame, FCS Jacksonville State, and Wake Forest. Florida State enters Saturday’s game with an 0-3 record.
FSU Offense Breakdown
For the second straight year, Florida State is still trying to figure out what to do with their quarterback situation. Jordan Travis started the season and gives the team a dynamic runner, but has struggled with accuracy issues (52% career completion percentage) as well as injuries this season.
With Travis dealing with injuries, former UCF standout McKenzie Milton has been elevated to the starting position. Milton was an excellent quarterback for the Knights, completing 61.8% of his passes for 8,683 yards and 92 total touchdowns before breaking his leg in 2018 against South Florida. He hasn’t returned to the NFL Draft potential that he had in 2018 (63% completion, one pass TD, three INT this season), but he has shown flashes on some plays.
While Milton is likely starting on Saturday, don’t be surprised if Travis (health permitting) makes an appearance. Florida State rotated both quarterbacks last week against Wake Forest, before Travis exited the game. Travis definitely gives them an edge as far as mobility goes, able to take off and get quick yardage.
Unfortunately, as has been the case for Florida State the last few seasons, their offensive line remains a massive weakness on the team. The Seminoles have already given up nine sacks this season (T-105th in FBS), and since 2016, they have only finished in the top 100 in that category once. With Milton’s mobility still a question mark as a result of his catastrophic injury from 2018, the line simply has to be better for this team to have a chance.
What they do have, though, is a solid running back that can at least give FSU something to work off of. Jashaun Corbin broke out last year as a true freshman and is yet another FSU running back that may be heading to the NFL. Tre’Shaun Ward (169 rushing yards, TD) and Lawrance Toafili are decent options that give them depth in the backfield.
The Seminoles don’t necessarily have a go-to receiver in their offense, but they will spread the ball around to all levels of the field, especially to running backs. It’s been a staple of the Norvell offense since his days at Memphis, as evidenced by players such as Kenneth Gainwell, Antonio Gibson (though Gibson actually played wide receiver in college and moved to running back for the NFL Draft), and Tony Pollard. So far, 14 of FSU’s 48 pass completions have gone to listed running backs, approximately 29%.
Among the receiver group, I’d say Ontaria Wilson and Darion Williamson are the biggest threats. Wilson scored a 65-yard touchdown against Wake Forest last week, and led FSU in receptions last year against Louisville (five rec., 27 yards, TD).
Players to Watch: RB Jashaun Corbin (280 rushing yards, two TDs), RB Tre’Shaun Ward (203 all-purpose yards, two total TDs); WR Ontaria Wilson (four rec., 89 yards, TD)
FSU Defense Breakdown
So far, Florida State’s defense has faced serious issues in 2021. They’re ranked 116th in passing yards allowed per game (289 YPG) and allowing 38 points per game against FBS competition.
They did get some transfers into the program to help boost it, led by ex-Georgia edge rusher Jermaine Johnson. He’s currently tied for the FBS lead in sacks and he is a bruiser at the point of attack. Louisville’s pass protection has done well so far with four sacks allowed through three games, but facing Johnson will be their toughest challenge to date this season.
To Florida State’s credit, they are solid in run defense and getting stops behind the line of scrimmage. FSU is 16th in the FBS with 25 tackles for loss (also ninth in the FBS with 12 sacks). Derrick McLendon II (3.5 tackles for loss) and Keir Thomas (2.5 TFL) add some solid depth to the edge for Florida State, while Amari Gainer (2.5 TFL) and DJ Lundy (two TFL) add some talent to the linebacker group. Gainer is also a solid cover linebacker that will likely be matched up with Marshon Ford.
Players to Watch: EDGE Jermaine Johnson (4.5 sacks, 6.5 TFL, 28 tackles); EDGE Derrick McLendon II (two sacks, three TFL); LB Amari Gainer (20 tackles, 2.5 TFL, one sack)
Keys to the Game
Louisville’s front seven needs to set the tone against Florida State
This is one of few games before the season where people could say Louisville’s front seven has a definitive advantage over the opposing offensive line. They played a huge factor in last year’s win over Florida State, and the recipe for a win on Saturday will be much the same.
Louisville’s front seven will have to keep Corbin and Ward from getting big runs between the tackles and big yardage on first and second down. Forcing FSU into second-and-long and third-and-long spots will allows Louisville’s defense to go for blitzes and put pressure on Milton or Travis. Also, I think Louisville’s secondary is capable of making plays against this offense. Florida State is tied for the worst turnover margin in FBS heading into this week (-6), most of it coming on errant throws from Milton and Travis. If Louisville’s front seven can set the tone early, it could end up being another victory for the Cardinals.
Can Malik Cunningham carry the momentum from last week?
Both Jack Coan and Sam Hartman had solid outings against Florida State in the first three weeks of the season, and were huge reasons why the Fighting Irish and Demon Deacons were able to pull off victories against the Seminoles.
Malik Cunningham himself is coming off one of the best performances of his career, completing 23-of-38 passes and accumulating 364 total yards (265 pass, 99 rush) with three total touchdowns in last week’s win over UCF. After a shaky first two weeks of the 2021 season, I am focusing on whether or not he can carry that momentum into the next two weeks against Florida State and Wake Forest. If he plays well in both games, Louisville is likely 4-1 and it makes their path to a bowl game significantly easier.
Florida State is allowing 289 passing yards per game (116th in FBS) and 8.3 yards per attempt (T-107th). With that in mind, Louisville could look to stretch the field and give guys like Jordan Watkins and Tyler Harrell chances downfield. Wake Forest also had some success with its intermediate and deep passing game, so Marshon Ford and Braden Smith might be other names to watch for on Saturday.
Louisville’s offensive line has to avoid giving up negative plays
As important as it is for Louisville’s front seven to put the pressure on Florida State, Louisville’s offensive line has to avoid giving up negative plays to a Florida State front seven that thrives off of it. I think Louisville can achieve a decent steady of balance between run/pass against the Seminoles, but it cannot go behind the chains too often against FSU. If so, Florida State might be able to force Cunningham into errant throws off pressure or force a punt.