What once looked to be no more than a small bump in the road for the No. 7 Louisville Cardinals on their way to double digits in wins took on a new dimension last week when the North Carolina State Wolfpack came within a missed field goal of knocking Clemson from its lofty ranking.
The Cardinals and Wolfpack meet at noon ET Saturday at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium in Louisville (ABC).
While the unranked Wolfpack (4-2, 1-1 ACC) were putting a scare into the unbeaten Tigers, the Cardinals (5-1, 3-1 ACC) were having an unexpected tussle with Duke at home.
The Blue Devils may have given an example on how to slow Louisville quarterback and Heisman Trophy favorite Lamar Jackson: Keep him off the field. The Blue Devils controlled the ball and the clock, though ultimately not the scoreboard in a 24-14 Louisville win.
“It's a little frustrating,” Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said of Duke's ability to control the tempo. “There's no question about it. They got themselves into third-and-shorts and then converted.
“We're not used to that. We're used to getting off the field on defense and getting our offense the ball back, but we held in there and found a way to win.”
Duke controlled the football for over 37 minutes and managed to hold the Cardinals to just 61 plays, 19 fewer than what they were averaging coming into the game.
Jackson still got his yards (144 on 21 rushes with one touchdown, 181 on 13 completions in 26 attempts with one score), but Louisville wasn't able to put the game away until a roughing-the-kicker-penalty kept alive a touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter and provided the Cardinals with a 10-point margin of victory.
Jackson said Duke's strategy caught the Cardinals by surprise, but that isn't likely to happen with the Wolfpack. Unlike Duke, which is a member of the ACC's Coastal Division, N.C. State is a colleague with Louisville in the Atlantic and they play each other every season.
“We know them well because the majority of the players are the same guys we've been playing against for the last two years,” Petrino said. “They're very well coached. They're a physical team.
“We've always had really good battles with them and found a way to win in the fourth quarter, so I imagine this is going be a very good football game.”
The Wolfpack are hoping to build momentum from its play against Clemson.
“I think we learned about how good we are,” quarterback Ryan Finley said. “We took on the No. 3 team into overtime and really beat ourselves.
“We have a great squad and we are going to bounce back from this. This is not the end of our season.”
N.C. State's defense has received strong reviews during the first month-plus of the season, and that was on display against Clemson.
Much of the good work from the defense might have been dismissed a week earlier because the 10-3 victory against Notre Dame was played in windy, rainy conditions brought on by Hurricane Matthew.
But there was no mistake of the defense's ability against Clemson. N.C. State forced four turnovers in the game and held the Tigers to just 117 yards rushing, though Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson passed for 378.
The Wolfpack had 397 yards in total offense to Clemson's 495.
Wolfpack senior running back Matt Dayes had a triple-digit rushing game against the Tigers with 106 yards on 22 carries with one touchdown. Finley, a transfer from Boise State, passed for 231 yards and a touchdown but was intercepted twice, including his last pass in overtime to end the game.
“I definitely feel like the team realizes that we can compete with just about anybody in the country and we have just got to believe that,” Dayes said. “We are a great offense and defense. We have just got to finish. … We probably surprised them, but we weren't surprised ourselves.”
The Wolfpack aren't likely to catch Louisville by surprise.
“We have to go out this week and have a great week of practice and be more intense, more into our focus, more in the preparation that we've had for the other games that we've played early in the fall,” Petrino said. “We weren't at the top of our game, and we need to get back to that, get back to our players you know, working to have the best game they've had all year.”