Louisville chasing playoff spot as it hosts Wake Forest
Louisville winds up ACC play this weekend pretty much knowing that a win over Wake Forest isn't going to be enough to get the Cardinals into the conference championship game.
That would take a complete collapse by undefeated Clemson over the next two weeks.
But the No. 6 Cardinals (8-1, 6-1 ACC) still harbor hopes of snagging one of the four spots in the College Football Playoff as they prepare to host Wake Forest Saturday. Kickoff is at 7 p.m. ET with ESPN2 telecasting from Papa John's Cardinal Stadium in Louisville.
After the Demon Deacons (6-3, 3-2 ACC) the Cardinals go out of conference play with a trip to Houston and a home game against instate rival Kentucky winding up their regular season.
Impressive wins in their last three games could provide them with an argument to be included in the playoff, but Cardinals coach Bobby Petrino wants his players to focus only on the Deacons, who nearly upset the Cardinals last year in Winston-Salem.
“All I told them was we can only control how we play, how we go out and perform, and how we win games,” Petrino said. “That is the only thing we can control right there.”
How they win games is usually big. The Cardinals romped past Boston College 52-7 last week and earlier whipped North Carolina State 54-13, Florida State 63-20, and Syracuse 63-28.
Quarterback Lamar Jackson has been the main catalyst and early on established himself as the favorite for the Heisman Trophy. He has rushed for over 131 yards a game, passed for nearly 306, and has accounted for 45 touchdowns — 19 on runs and 26 on passes — while throwing just six interceptions in 288 pass attempts.
But the Cardinals also have had some close calls.
They scored a late touchdown that came with the help of a late penalty against Duke for a 10-point win at home over the Blue Devils, and they scored with just 13 seconds left for a 32-25 win at Virginia after falling behind 25-24 with just over two minutes left. The Cardinals lost by six at Clemson after falling behind by 18 points.
The close calls could have affected Louisville's placement when the first CFP rankings came out last week. The Cardinals were No. 7 then.
“I know that last week when the rankings came out our players were upset about it,” Petrino said. “Really what we talked about was that we really just need to go out and play well and execute and play the type of ball that we know how to play.
“I do think it motivated us.”
The result was the 45-point destruction of Boston College.
Wake Forest, with its aggressive and veteran defense, could be a different matter.
“Their defensive front will be as active as anybody we have played this year,” Petrino said. “What I mean by that is they really rush the passer, they play great technique on the run, their linebackers are fast and sprint to the football, and very experienced secondary.”
While the Cardinals came into the season looking to compete for a national championship, the Deacons have already achieved their goal. Coach Dave Clawson made no secret of the fact he was intent on getting his team into the postseason. With six wins already and a plethora of bowls, that seems a certainty.
“I was very open about it and very frank about it at the beginning of the year, that I thought it was a very realistic expectation to go to a bowl game this year,” he said. “I would have been very disappointed if we didn't get into a bowl.”
Quarterback John Wolford, who has started since his freshman year, has been a key figure. He had a 64-yard touchdown run in Wake's 27-20 win over Virginia last week and is second on the team in rushing with 456 yards, behind running back Matt Colburn's 463. The Deacons have already rushed for more yards in nine games (1,476) than they had all of 2015 (1,262).
“This was a big goal for us going into the year,” Wolford said of reaching bowl eligibility. “But we can't be satisfied.”