Lamar Jackson is still a deity when it comes to college football, but every god is eventually questioned.
The Cardinals escaped Charlottesville with a 32-25 win over Virginia, keeping their playoff hopes alive and Jackson comfortably atop the Heisman race despite having their second weak performance in three outings. The Cavaliers, who dropped to 2-6, kept things surprisingly competitive, as Louisville required a 29-yard pass from Jackson to Jaylen Smith with 13 seconds remaining to keep from becoming a two-loss, regular-bowl-bound team.
And that pass was a beauty; a reminder of why Jackson’s spot atop the Heisman board has, to this point in the season, gone largely unquestioned.
The win will go down as a close-call and a signifier of what Jackson is still capable of even on his worst days (361 passing yards, four touchdowns, and 90 rushing yards). But if Louisville makes it to the playoff or a Big Six bowl, it will, in all likelihood, be forgotten, moved aside to make room for memories calling back on his destruction of Florida State or admirable clash with Clemson.
And that’s a shame, because for the past eight seasons (2011 excluded), Virginia has wallowed at the bottom of the ACC Coastal, and for most of the game, today seemed like its best shot at joining the national conversation. The Cavaliers are finally out of the Mike London era (good for them) and now have Bronco Mendenhall, the former BYU head coach, at the helm. As was to be expected, his first season is going poorly, but for 59 minutes and 47 seconds, today seemed to be the day he would secure that ever-coveted initial signature win. That’s not to say the Cavaliers controlled the game start to finish, but they did do something that, amazingly, only one other team has done in somehow slowing down Jackson. And that gave them something Jimbo Fisher would have likely killed for on Sept. 19: a chance.
Last week, Louisville savaged N.C. State, going up 44-0 by halftime and eventually winning 54-13. It was the Cardinals’ second-straight win since they lost a road shootout to Clemson and fell out of the top-four in the national polls. The win stood in stark contrast to the previous week’s victory, in which they needed all four quarters to secure a 24-14 win against a mediocre (okay, shitty) Duke team. Initially, it was an easy write-off as a post-Clemson hangover; when Louisville dropped 553 yards and 54 points on the Wolfpack, it felt like confirmation that Jackson and Co. still enjoyed fucking up a defense.
It’s not entirely clear what triggered today’s performance. Jackson aside, Louisville, while full of talent, isn’t the most resilient team in the nation. If anything, today’s win, much like the Friday night win against Duke two weeks ago, seemed to be captured by a Louisville team that’s content to play down to its opponents capabilities. When things are going well, it’s over—they owned the Seminoles from the opening whistle, hanging 63 points on a top-15 team without breaking a sweat. Then, there are games like those played against the Blue Devils and Cavaliers, two teams the Cardinals should, on paper, be up on by 30 at halftime. Yet in both outings, Louisville receivers dropped easy passes, the opposing defensive fronts (both weak) looked like actual fronts, and Jackson looked uncomfortable until the final 15 minutes came around.
Chew on this: Duke held Jackson to 181 yards through the air and Blue Devil quarterback Daniel Jones actually outplayed him in the pocket, throwing two scores and completing 66.7 percent of his passes to Jackson’s one score and 50.0 completion percentage. (Naturally, Jackson also rushed for 144 yards and a score in that game.) Today, through three quarters, Virginia held Louisville under 3.5 yards per rush; by the end of the game, the Cardinals managed to bump it up to 4.3, still well below their 6.7 season average heading into the contest. Louisville clung to a 10-7 lead against the Blue Devils after 30 minutes; today, same score at the half, only it was Virginia that was clinging to the lead.
The Blue Devils and Cavaliers are not a sleeper teams you just haven’t been following, they’re legitimately bad teams you shouldn’t watch unless they’re playing your favorite squad or a top-5 opponent. Coming into the contest, Virginia ranked 107th in total defense, 113th in passing defense, and 101st in scoring defense per CFBStats. Duke’s defense has been more respectable, ranking in the top-50 in the same categories; it’s been the Blue Devil offense that’s dragged the team to a 3-6 record. This, from two teams with weak nonconference and ACC Coastal schedules that, prior to Saturday, combined to include but two ranked foes—the Cavaliers were dropped 35-14 by No. 22 North Carolina last week; Duke’s only ranked opponent was Louisville.
And yet, these two teams have been the only ones outside Clemson to line up opposite Jackson, ask him if he bleeds, and provide an actual answer that isn’t, “Holy shit, he does not.”
The first half of today’s game unfolded in bizarre fashion relative to what was expected—a 30-point Louisville rout. Virginia struck first, tacking on a field goal, only to have Jackson answer two drives later with a five-play, 87-yard touchdown drive. “So it begins,” Cavalier fans thought.
Instead, Virginia, as it would in the second half, forced the star into mistakes; more importantly, it made the Cardinals pay for them. After the Cavaliers’ next drive ended with a punt, Jackson coughed up the ball at Louisville’s 28-yard line, leading to a Kurt Benkert 9-yard touchdown pass two plays later. The Cardinals had no answer this time. On the half, Louisville’s drive results went punt, punt, touchdown, fumble, punt, turnover-on-downs, halftime.
The Virginia front, led by middle linebacker Micah Kiser, was masterful in the opening 30, sacking Jackson three times, keeping him and the offense from finding their rhythm. The seven points the Cardinals had at the half were the fewest they’ve scored all season; like his players, head coach Bobby Petrino seemed flummoxed after a full half of being owned by a bad team.
Initially, things didn’t get much better for Louisville out of the break. It opened with a punt that was followed six plays later by another 9-yard scoring strike from Benkert to put Virginia up 17-7. An athletic poke in the eye, the score was set up by a 41-yard catch-and-run by Doni Dowling, who added the exclamation point with a move that looked awfully familiar.
Two plays later, Jackson tossed an ugly pick to Virginia safety Quin Blanding. (In a move that would come back to haunt them, the Cavaliers missed the drive-ending 30-yard field goal.)
Eventually, like all good things that are actually not good, the era of Virginia football superiority came to a screeching halt in the exciting fourth quarter. Down 17-14, the Cardinals reeled off 18 points in the final period, dashing an absolutely wonderful go-ahead drive by the Cavaliers that included two fourth-down conversions and a two-point conversion, which was followed by an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Louisville. Folks, for a moment, with 1:57 left on the clock, even knowing what Jackson is capable of, a part of me believed in the Wahoos.
Fortunately, they did not let me down, in a sense, as Virginia ultimately followed the division’s tried-and-true formula of letting everybody down. Duke managed this by roughing Louisville’s kicker on a missed 46-yard field goal while down by seven with 2:00 remaining in the game; Virginia managed it by simply giving Jackson too much time (and having a corner that’s just an inch too short to cover Jaylen Smith).
Jackson finished the game with 361 passing yards, four scores, 90 rushing yards, an interception, and a lost fumble. Thanks to his ridiculous arsenal of athletic ability and superior offensive teammates, Jackson will likely maintain his immortal aura through the rest of the season. But he does bleed, and it would appear ACC Coastal bottom-feeders are his kryptonite.