John Clay

As UK struggles to get off the ground, Louisville welcomes peak visibility

Louisville’s Lamar Jackson high-steps into the end zone for a touchdown during the Cards’ 62-28 win at Syracuse on Friday, Sept. 9, 2016.
Louisville’s Lamar Jackson high-steps into the end zone for a touchdown during the Cards’ 62-28 win at Syracuse on Friday, Sept. 9, 2016. Associated Press

While Kentucky’s 2016 football season experiences a failure to launch, down the road at archrival Louisville the Cardinals are flying high.

Saturday morning, the folks from ESPN’s popular “College GameDay” will be broadcasting from the Howard Schnellenberger Complex at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. It’s the first visit to Louisville for the show, which normally docks at college football’s epicenter each Saturday.

At noon, the network’s lead announcing team of Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit and Samantha Ponder will stick around to telecast the marquee matchup between the No. 10 Cards and No. 2 Florida State.

And why not? Louisville is off to a 2-0 start, and the Cardinals boast not only the No. 1-ranked offense in the nation but possibly the most dynamic player in the country in sophomore quarterback Lamar Jackson.

Just last Friday night at the Carrier Dome, Jackson became the first player in FBS history to rush for at least 175 yards (Jackson topped that with 199 yards on the ground) and throw for 400 (Jackson’s number was 411) in a single game. He ran for four touchdowns and passed for another. Louisville won 62-28.

NCAA top three in total yards per game: 1. Louisville 754.0 2. Texas Tech 685.0 3. California and TCU 617.0

After a 70-14 win over an overwhelmed Charlotte in the opener, Louisville has scored 132 points in its first two games. Ninety-one of those points have come in the first half. Louisville gained 663 total yards against Charlotte. It gained a ridiculous 845 at Syracuse.

Now toss in Florida State, traditional national power. Labor Day night, the Seminoles fell behind Ole Miss 28-6, then staged a furious second-half rally to beat the Rebels 45-34. A 52-8 pleasure cruise past Charleston Southern last week, combined with Clemson’s struggle to put away Troy 30-24, lifted Jimbo Fisher’s team to the spot directly behind Alabama in the polls.

“It’s a big game. I wouldn’t say like a bowl game, but it’s a big game,” even U of L Coach Bobby Petrino admitted Monday. “They’ve been to the championship game; they’ve got a ring on their finger. We knew that if we were going to make a run in this conference or run to the goal that we want, that we had to find a way to beat them, so we are looking forward to the matchup.”

You can say a lot of things about Petrino, but “bad coach” is not one of them. After all his various career controversies — his dalliances with other schools during his first stint at Louisville; the way he quit the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons after 13 games; his motorcycle sex scandal at Arkansas — Petrino remains at or near the top of the list in game plans and play-calling.

His handling of Jackson is the latest example. The Pompano Beach, Fla., native is unlike any quarterback Petrino has coached. If anything, Jackson is similar to the one Petrino thought he was going to coach in the NFL; before Michael Vick was sidelined by his own scandal. Yet Petrino has tweaked his system to not just accommodate Jackson’s dazzling play-making ability but to take it to another level.

It also seems safe to say that Tom Jurich knew what he was doing when he welcomed Petrino back to Louisville three years ago. Plenty of head-scratching greeted the hiring. Wasn’t Jurich reportedly upset with the way Petrino left U of L? What about the coach’s baggage? Jurich had something the skeptics lacked, however. He had a previous relationship with the coach. Jurich knew what he was getting, good and bad. Given the point in Petrino’s career, Jurich’s calculation was the good would outweigh the bad.

So far, he’s been right. Petrino’s return season ended 9-4. After an 0-3 start, last year’s team caught fire to finish 8-5. Now, a 2-0 start combined with a highlight-reel quarterback and pinball offensive numbers has elevated the Cards to their highest AP ranking since 2013 plus a GameDay visit.

“Certainly,” Petrino said Monday, “this is something we’ve looked forward to.”

Next game

Florida State at Louisville

Noon Saturday (ABC-36)

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