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High-flying Louisville offense provides challenge for Bulldogs

 

Brett Hudson

 

 

STARKVILLE -- Greg Knox knows Mississippi State's history of facing active Heisman Trophy winners is limited. On command, the only instances MSU's interim head football coach could bring up were facing Ricky Williams in the Cotton Bowl after the 1988 season and hosting Tim Tebow in 2009; he missed facing Johnny Manziel in 2013, but his point stood. 

 

That being the case, Knox knows where his attention as No. 24 MSU (8-4) prepares to face Louisville (8-4) in the TaxSlayer Bowl 11 a.m. Dec. 30 (ESPN) at Jacksonville, Florida's EverBank Field. All eyes will be on quarterback Lamar Jackson. 

 

"They're very talented at quarterback. They've got a guy that can run the ball, and there's not many around like him," Knox said. "Him and Nick Fitzgerald, guys like that, they can change a game in a heartbeat with their feet and with their arms. They put so much pressure on a defense." 

 

As it relates to Louisville's rushing attack, one of the nation's best by almost any measure, it will become apparent to Knox that it is fueled by more than just Jackson. 

 

When filtering out games against FCS competition, Louisville leads the nation in yards per carry (6.55) and is fifth in the nation in yards per carry against teams with a winning record (6.0). Advanced numbers are equally fond of the Cardinals rushing attack: Bill Connelly's Success Rate metric, which deems a given play successful based on how many yards it gains relative to the down and distance situation, rates Louisville fourth in the nation in Rushing Success Rate. In his IsoPPP metric, a measure of explosiveness, Louisville ranks sixth. 

 

Jackson and his 208 carries for 1,443 yards deserve his fair share of credit for that rushing success, but lately, he has not been alone. 

 

"At first it was just Lamar making it up out of nowhere," Mark Ennis said. Ennis has covered the Cardinals for years and currently hosts The Drive on 93.9 FM in Louisville. "I would say the first half of the season, they had a bunch of new linemen and then all the running backs got hurt; (running back) Reggie Bonnafon was the only guy that didn't get hurt this year, it was wild. 

 

"About midway through the season, the offensive line came together really well and all their running back got healthy at the same time." 

 

Ennis is backed by numbers that suggest Louisville has turned more of the focus to its running backs in recent weeks. Excluding two non-conference blowouts in which Jackson did not play the entire game, he averaged 21.1 carries per game; in the last three, he averaged 15. 

 

While running backs Bonnafon and Malik Williams remained parts of the offense, most of the extra carries went to freshman Dae Williams. He tore his ACL in the spring and missed Louisville's first seven games of the season, but returned to average 9.6 carries per game over Louisville's final three games after six carries combined in his first two games. 

 

Louisville's rushing output has not suffered from straying away from Jackson: Louisville has run for 298 or more yards five times this season, three of them coming in the final three games of the season -- wins over Virginia, Syracuse and Kentucky. 

 

"Especially in the second half of the season, they really became more of a power running team," Ennis said. "They would get under center and run downhill; they haven't gone away from the option, that's still a big piece of it. 

 

"Once they had three healthy running backs and the offensive line came together, the running game really took off." 

 

Jackson's output did not suffer, either: he set a school record with six straight games of at least 100 rushing yards or more over the final six games. 

 

This year's MSU defense has been the best rushing defense MSU has had since 2011 by yards per carry allowed (3.73); it faces one of its toughest tests yet in the TaxSlayer Bowl. 

 

Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson

 

 

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