Virginia Cavaliers @ Louisville Cardinals
Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium – Louisville, KY
Virginia Cavaliers (21) – Louisville Cardinals (38)
The Louisville Cardinals had a strong showing on Saturday afternoon, a home victory over the Virginia Cavaliers to ensure that we will see one more bowl game from Lamar Jackson before he makes his final leap to the NFL. Jackson was terrific, and as I watched him with the intent of seeing growth as a passer, I came away satisfied with what I’d seen.
Jackson did not win this game alone, he had help from some familiar and unfamiliar names alike. But as is always the case with this generation of Cardinals, it starts and ends with #8.
Deep boundary passing improvement for Jackson
Watching Jackson over the summer, it was evident that one of his major deficiencies as a passer came when trying to push the ball vertically outside the numbers (or up the sideline).
Against the Cavaliers defense, Jackson hit two big touchdown plays up the right sideline for 20+ yards, which if nothing else is an indication of growth being present. Jackson’s two TDs to WR Jaylen Smith were into one on one situations. Jackson stood tall in the pocket on the first throw for a perfectly placed football.
But the second throw was the more impressive of the two. Jackson had to bob and weave in the pocket to avoid the rush but yet the eyes never dropped from looking down the field. Jackson was able to come to balance and let go a slightly overthrown ball that Smith was able to make a spectacular catch on to complete the play.
Getting more production out of the boundary passing game from Jackson adds another layer and checks another box. I want to see more of these plays from Jackson down the stretch.
Jackson looks bigger, faster, stronger (than 2016)
No one is going to call Jackson a “big” Quarterback. His frame simply doesn’t have the look of a traditional drop back passer. But that’s okay, if he’s able to sustain his athletic ability (what makes him so special) while adding some muscle.
So far so good. Seeing Jackson up close and personal on Saturday, as I had done after Thanksgiving last year, gave me the opportunity to see how his efforts in the weight room have paid off.
Jackson looks good! He’s got a noticeably greater amount of muscle than the previous season. And it looked to have no negative impact on his ability to explode through lanes as a runner: Jackson’s explosive 68 yard zone read score to get the Cards on the board was over before it really began. Jackson can still go 0-60 in no time flat.
Jackson also doesn’t get the praise he should for his toughness as a player. By and large he is effective in minimizing his big hits, but when he takes a stick in the open field or in the pocket, he’s always quick to bounce up. So while I don’t think Jackson is necessarily done remodeling his frame, there’s enough there to be encouraged that it won’t be a massive issue.
A little help from his friends
A few Cardinal players had really nice football games against Virginia. The previously mentioned WR Jaylen Smith being one of those. Smith logged 5 catches for 84 yards and 2 scores, including that spectacular one handed grab. On that play, Smith did well to identify a soft space in the deep portion of the field, as the Cavs tried to cross up the offense with a zone coverage. But Smith ran a crosser from left to right before finding the soft spot and looping behind a squatting defender to uncover and make the play.
Smith looks big and fast, he’s been the go to receiver all year in the passing game. Yes, there have been some drops. But this game will go down as a good one on the resume.
Defensively, Safety Chucky Williams was a big enforcer for a defense that has been much maligned all year. Williams led the team in total tackles (9) and has the look of a nickel LB/Safety hybrid. But the star of the show was undoubtedly DE James Hearns (#99). Hearns finished this game with 3 sacks and 3 forced fumbles, playing as a terror on the right side of the Virginia defensive line.
Hearns didn’t show great explosiveness as a rusher but he is long and won with hand usage frequently. I’m eager to sit down and watch more of the senior defensive end to find out if this was an aberration or if perhaps we have a gem on our hands.
The Cavaliers played, too
For a team with NFL players on all three levels of the defense, perhaps we would have liked to see the Cavaliers play *better*. But they did play. Senior defensive lineman Andrew Brown (#9) had a quiet day in the box score but was disruptive up front. He’s got a terrific build and athleticism combination, which when really put under the microscope should get scouts and analysts excited.
Safety Quin Blanding (#3) is what he is at this point. He can get away with playing Cover 2 deep, but deep zone coverage simply is not a strength of his game. The Cards picked on him once and drew a big DPI and later in the game Blanding buzzed across the field to challenge a post route and missed a potential interception. He’s terrific in the box. His run support, blitz ability and short area coverage skills make him a potential starter. He showed much of the same against Louisville.
Finally, the Virginia QB wasn’t too bad in his own right. QB Kurt Benkert was 19/36 passing for just 214 yards, but there were some throws that were of the Sunday variety. Benkert is mentally tough, patient in the pocket, has some fair mobility and an arm with enough juice to squeeze in some throws. I’ll be adding him to my target list for further study to see if he’s consistent. But at least for this game, Benkert showed some NFL qualities as a passer.