With Heisman hopeful Lamar Jackson in tow, Bobby Petrino's Louisville return is looking like a stroke of genius

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – If you want to know why Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich took the flak and controversially brought back Bobby Petrino as his football coach in 2014, you saw the jaw-dropping answer Saturday.

Because Petrino is a guy capable of competing for a national title and molding a Heisman Trophy winner, at a place that has never done either and never come terribly close. Until now.

Come Sunday, there is a good chance Louisville will be solidly in most playoff projections. And it’s a dead-solid lock that quarterback Lamar Jackson will top every Heisman Trophy list from coast to coast.

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“I’m very biased,” Jurich said after Petrino’s Cardinals destroyed second-ranked Florida Freakin’ State 63-20. “But I think he’s the greatest coach in football. Without question, I think he’s the greatest play-caller ever invented.”

Nick Saban might have something to say about the first assertion, and Bill Walsh might have something to say about the second from the Hereafter, but the point is understood. Petrino is an elite coach, one Jurich was willing to rehire after personal failings led to his being fired at Arkansas.

Jurich insists that Petrino has learned from his errors at Arkansas and earlier, including his time as a talented but problematic first-time head coach at Louisville from 2003-06. That he is a changed man. One thing is clear: he’s as good a coach as ever, if not better than ever. After promising during the summer that the Cardinals would get back to lighting up scoreboards, he’s leading a team that has scored 62 or more in three straight games.

In what arguably was Louisville’s biggest regular-season football game ever, Petrino orchestrated a wipeout of epic proportion. His team scored more points on the Seminoles than any opponent ever has. And it only took 47 ½ minutes to cross the 60-point threshold. After that, Jackson spent the rest of the game doing what he did against Charlotte and Syracuse – watching the backups finish the game.

A touted showdown became a three-phases beatdown. And a statement game. The statement:

“Louisville comes to play,” said running back Brandon Radcliff, who went over 100 yards rushing for the second straight game as the capable sidekick to the electrifying Jackson.

Bobby Petrino’s Cardinals are averaging 65 points per game through three wins this season. (Getty)
Bobby Petrino’s Cardinals are averaging 65 points per game through three wins this season. (Getty)

Louisville came to play Saturday with an offensive gameplan that simply was unstoppable. Receivers galloped freely through the Seminoles’ secondary. Runners charged through big holes. Florida State defenders were perpetually on their heels – bamboozled by formations, outhit at the point of attack and outrun by the fleet Cardinals.

In the first half, there wasn’t a single point in time where the Florida State defense could stop Louisville. The Cardinals scored touchdowns on their first, third, fifth, sixth and seventh possessions. The second drive stopped when Jackson overthrew an open receiver. The fourth ended in a missed field goal that hit the upright.

Louisville’s offensive line, a weak spot last year, was busy “removing [the Seminoles] from the line of scrimmage,” in Petrino’s words. A receiving corps that dropped a lot of passes last week dropped none this time around, with senior James Quick – something of an underachiever in his career after turning down Ohio State and Oregon to play for his hometown school – racking up 122 yards. Jackson had another monster game, with 362 yards total offense and five more touchdowns.

The second half showcased the growing completeness of the Louisville program. The Cardinals defense – led by second-chance transfers Josh Harvey-Clemons and Devonte Fields – kept hammering Florida State quarterback Deondre Francois, sacking him five times on the day and obliterating the poise the redshirt freshman showed in the season-opening comeback against Mississippi. Special teams produced a 69-yard punt return touchdown and second return of 61 yards by sophomore Jaire Alexander.

It all worked. Against a blueblood opponent that hasn’t been beaten like this since a 58-14 loss to Southern Mississippi in 1981.

“There is no reason to panic,” said Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, but perhaps that’s because he couldn’t see the Seminoles fans heading to the exits early in the third quarter.

As complete as this Louisville performance was, it also served as a singular showcase for Jackson. The sophomore from South Florida had captured the nation’s attention with 13 total touchdowns in two games, flashing all the athleticism of his boyhood football hero, Michael Vick.

But doubters remained. They wanted to see him do it against a high-level opponent, not Charlotte and Syracuse.

Now they’ve seen it – Vick included. His tweet Saturday: “Lamar Jackson 5x better than what I was at V-Tech….Enough said!! #future”

The show-stopper was Jackson’s final run of the game, early in the fourth quarter. The score was 49-10, the Cardinals had the ball at the Florida State 47, and Petrino’s call was a read option to the left side.

Louisville had altered how it ran that play as the game went along because the Seminoles’ defensive ends were playing it well to the outside. So they had Jackson taking the ball more up the middle, inside the end. That’s what happened on this play.

Jackson burst into the secondary, cut once, cut twice, and simply ran away from a secondary always associated with speed. It was a run that will receive a lot of airplay if No. 8’s Heisman candidacy remains on track.

“Pretty amazing run,” Petrino said.

No Jackson has ever had feet like Lamar. Not even Michael. But nobody of any surname might be a tougher grader than Jackson is on himself.

He gave himself a D for his performance Saturday, after doling out A-pluses to his offensive line and receivers. The flaws: seven incomplete passes and an interception in the end zone – something he’s sure to hear about from his mother, Felicia James, who is both Jackson’s biggest fan and fiercest critic.

“I’m going to have to deal with that later,” he said of the inevitable critique from mom.

Grading on the college football curve, though, Jackson earns a 100 percent for the season to date. There are two huge games ahead – one in the near term, one farther down the line: at Clemson on Oct. 1 and at Houston on Nov. 17. If Jackson stays healthy – there is the danger with a running QB, but you have to be able to catch a running QB to hit him hard – he could be the star of the season.

And Louisville will be very hard to stop.

“We’re not taking our foot off the gas for anybody,” Jackson said.

Bobby Petrino was brought back to Louisville to build this Ferrari of a football team. It’s pedal to the metal for the foreseeable future.

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