Louisville faces crucial must-win against NC State

Lamar Jackson has grown more comfortable at quarterback for Louisville. Jason Getz/USA TODAY Sports

Not many people had Louisville sitting at 1-3 through the first four games of the season. But rather than dwell on the tough losses, Cards players are looking forward to rallying during ACC play.

There is no better time to start than Saturday against a largely unproven NC State team that has beaten up on inferior competition.

Louisville sits on the opposite end, taking tough defeats against high-quality opponents to open the season. The Cards have played two Power 5 opponents already, including perhaps the best team in the conference in Clemson. They have lost each of their games by a touchdown or less.

So at least Louisville has faced adversity and been tested. Still, with the calendar about to flip to October, this game qualifies as a must-win for the Cards. Slipping to 1-4 -- and 0-2 in conference -- is not the start anybody envisioned.

“We let Clemson get away with a victory,” linebacker James Burgess said. “It’s still open for us. We just have to win out and watch what everyone else does, but right now just worry about us and North Carolina State. You’ve got to start one game at a time. We’re trying to get our first conference win on the road.”

Though it is tough to put much stock in a win over FCS Samford, Burgess said the victory was much needed for the team’s morale, especially since the group is so young. The Cards already have played nine true freshmen, and 15 players have made their first career starts.

That includes quarterback Lamar Jackson, who looked much more comfortable last week.

“Getting a win against Samford, it helps the team’s confidence and I think that’s what we needed at this point just to build our team confidence,” Burgess said. “We finally know what a win tastes like, and we love it and hopefully we’ll get another one on Saturday.”

Getting all those young players experience against big-time competition has come at a cost. Louisville has turned the ball over 10 times already, a big reason why it lost all three games. Its power run game needs work behind a revamped offensive line. And defensively, Burgess said players were freelancing too much in the first three games, and that led to mistakes as well.

“Players were trying to do much,” Burgess said. “We figured out to play to win, we have to all play together. Everybody can’t just worry about their stats or trying to make all the plays. Everybody has to do their job, and that will make everybody else better. We found out this weekend how good we can play. We played good when everybody was where they were supposed to be. It helps us out as a defense.”

Two key areas where the defense must show improvement against the Wolfpack: stopping the run and putting pressure on the quarterback. NC State has built upon the success it had last year and gotten even better on the ground, averaging 259 yards per game. In a win over South Alabama last week, Matthew Dayes and Shadrach Thornton each went over 100 yards. Dayes is tied for the national lead with nine touchdown runs.

Jacoby Brissett, meanwhile, is completing 77.9 percent of his passes and has yet to throw an interception. Louisville leads the nation with nine INTs in four games. To fluster Brissett into making mistakes, you can bet the Cards will want to turn up the heat. They only have six sacks on the season and seven total quarterback hurries.

“We have to stop the run on first down,” coach Bobby Petrino said. “Defensively, we have to do a really good job of stopping the run on first down, we have to get them into third and long. Offensively we have to move the ball, convert third downs and get the lead. Again, we are going to be a much better defense, we are going to get more sacks and more turnovers when we are playing with the lead.”