Two weekends into the 2016 college football season, Lamar Jackson, the Louisville quarterback, immediately placed himself in the discussion for the Heisman Trophy in the aftermath of his team’s 62-28 victory at Syracuse, where Jackson compiled 610 yards of offense and five touchdowns.
If Jackson wasn’t the sole focal point of opposing teams’ defensive coaching staffs before that performance, he certainly has been in every game since. And so it will be again on Saturday at Kenan Stadium, where North Carolina faces the unenviable task of defending one of the most difficult-to-defend college football players in recent memory.
Whether the Tar Heels have a chance to defeat No. 17 Louisville will depend in no small part on their defense, which faltered repeatedly during a surprising 35-30 defeat against California last weekend. And whether the defense rebounds from its disappointing season debut will depend in no small part on how it fares against Jackson.
On paper, at least, this looks like a nightmarish matchup for UNC. The Tar Heels allowed 6.42 yards per play against Cal – only 26 out of 128 FBS teams performed worse on a per-play basis in week one – and that was against an offense breaking in a new starting quarterback. Now comes one of the best quarterbacks in the country, coming off one of the best seasons in ACC history.
What, then, would represent a “good” defensive performance against Jackson? It might be one in which UNC avoids, in relative terms, allowing the sort of highlights, and the sort of overall statistical output, that would bolster Jackson’s quest to win the Heisman for the second consecutive season. Yet even an “average” game for Jackson, last season, translated into 393 yards of offense and four touchdowns.
What makes Jackson especially dangerous is that he’s equally adept at defeating defenses with his arm as with his legs. Try to take away his ability to find receivers, and he’s liable to take advantage of the open space in front of him for large rushing gains. Try to limit his ability to run, and it could be only a matter of time before he finds an open receiver.
Even when a defense does everything right, UNC coach Larry Fedora said earlier this week, Jackson still “can make you look foolish.” And the Tar Heels didn’t need help looking that way against Cal, when in some moments they left receivers open well beyond the line of scrimmage, and in others they failed to make tackles before allowing significant gains.
Correcting those mistakes would always come with its unique set of challenges. But now the Tar Heels must attempt to correct them against one of the nation’s best offenses, and against one of the nation’s best offensive players. J.P. Papuchis, the UNC defensive coordinator, has attempted to sell the task ahead of his players as “a great opportunity.” That’s what he told his defense.
And the Tar Heels, at least, don’t lack for confidence. Andre Smith, the outspoken middle linebacker, said earlier this week that he didn’t intend for Saturday to become “the Lamar Jackson show,” and of Jackson, Smith said, with a simple matter-of-factness, that “he’s not going to beat us. We’re just going to stop anything that he tries to do.”
For the past year, defenses have found that easier said than done. Jackson last season routinely punished defenses that allowed an average of at least 6 yards per play (as UNC did during its season debut). Jackson faced six such defenses last season, and averaged 322.8 yards passing and 130.5 yards rushing in those games.
Holding him below those averages on Saturday might be a victory for the Tar Heels, who surrendered six plays of at least 20 yards against Cal. That was the most disappointing part of UNC’s season-opening performance – that its experienced defense, which was expected to be a strength, allowed so many long plays.
“They weren’t mistakes that were characteristic of what we’ve shown to this point,” said Papuchis, comparing the opening-game showing to what his team did throughout the preseason.
This week, some of Papuchis’ players – Smith and cornerback M.J. Stewart, to name two – downplayed the significance of those breakdowns. The mistakes weren’t so much a harbinger of what’s to come, they said, but the result of correctable miscues, like a lack of communication. Jackson on Saturday will test that assessment.
Papuchis studied how Louisville attacked Purdue during the Cardinals’ 35-28 victory last weekend. The Cardinals ran 78 plays, and Jackson, Papuchis said, either threw or ran on 67 of them.
He will be the best quarterback UNC has faced since Clemson’s Deshaun Watson led the Tigers to a 45-37 victory in the 2015 ACC championship game. In that game, Watson passed for 289 yards and three touchdowns, and ran for 131 yards and two touchdowns. That performance came toward the end of UNC’s first season in a new defensive scheme, with new coaches.
Now the Tar Heels are in the third season with that scheme. And though coordinator Gene Chizik departed after last season, the defense expected to be UNC’s best asset entering the season – one capable of leading the team until the offense, with questions everywhere, developed cohesion. After one game, though, it’s fair to question UNC’s defensive potential.
Its opportunity for a do-over, or a restart, comes under less-than-desirable circumstances – against one of the nation’s best players. And even a “good” defensive showing against Jackson – one in which UNC holds him to his averages of about 400 yards and four touchdowns – might not be good enough.
Louisville at UNC
Where: Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill