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Petrino hoping Cards peak at the right time for nationally televised showdown with Clemson

By Russ Brown
Kentucky Today

Let the hype begin.

Actually, it already had, with the announcement over the weekend that ESPN’s “College Game Day” would be visiting Louisville for the second season in a row to showcase the No. 14 Cardinals’ (2-0, 1-0 ACC) crucial showdown with No. 3 Clemson (2-0, 0-0) Saturday night.

The buildup will continue to escalate throughout the week, so Louisville coach Bobby Petrino’s job will encompass more than pure X’s and O’s strategizing in his preparation. He noted during his weekly press conference Monday afternoon that the coaches also have to make sure the Cardinals aren’t ready to play Friday instead of Saturday.

Louisville handled the Game Day hoopla in grand fashion last year, destroying Florida State 63-20. But in another high-profile game two weeks later? Not so much. In Death Valley the Cards fell behind Clemson 28-10 at halftime before rallying in the second half en route to a 42-36 loss.

Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson is pushed out of bounds by North Carolina’s Donnie Miles (15) during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday

“It’s great for our recruiting and for our players,” Petrino said. “This is the type of game you grow up picturing yourself playing in, the kind of game you want to be in. It’s something our players have definitely looked forward to.

“I would expect us to have a good week of practice. We do need to understand that we’ve got to work hard and grind on Tuesday and Wednesday, then be able to relax and have poise. I’m hoping that our experience last year with Florida State and going on the road at Clemson will help us there. I thought at Clemson when we started the game we had some guys who were too hyped up, so hopefully that will carry over for us.

“I think the energy and excitement will be there, but we need to relax and not use it up in pregame. We just need to be ready at kickoff time, so that’s what we’ll shoot for.”

The game at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium will be in prime time, with an 8:12 p.m. kickoff on ABC, having been moved from its original 3:30 p.m. start. The slot opened when the ACC rescheduled the Florida State-Miami game for Oct. 7 because of Hurricane Irma.

“I enjoyed it so much last year in Death Valley,” ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit tweeted. “Only seems logical to see round 2 this year in Louisville!”

It’s a made-for-TV dream matchup pitting the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, and a team with high aspirations against the defending national champion and a furocious defense. There is plenty at stake for such an early-season game — national playoff implications and a leg up on the ACC’s Atlantic Division championship the two teams shared last season, with Clemson earning the tie-breaker due to its victory over Louisville. Not to mention Jackson’s chances for repeating as the Heisman winner.

Since Louisville joined the ACC, it has dropped all three games to favored Clemson, but has fallen just shy of an upset each time, losing by a combined 15 points. Las Vegas has the Tigers as an early 3-point favorite again this go-round.

The Cards opened ACC play with a 47-35 win at North Carolina last Saturday, while Clemson defeated then-No. 13 Auburn 14-6 after routing future UofL foe Kent State 56-3 in its opener. The Tigers struggled offensively against Auburn, but their defense was dominant, recording 11 sacks and limiting the losers to 15 total yards with minus 25 yards rushing in the second half. Auburn finished with just 117 total yards.

“When you’ve got a great defense, that can fix a lot of problems and can cover up a lot of mistakes,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “That allows you to not have to force certain things. All three levels of the defense played well. I can’t say enough good things.”

Petrino said he saw improvement by his team in the win at UNC, and the Cards will obviously need to take more steps — and bigger ones — to upset Clemson.

“When you watch Clemson play they always have a great defense, a real strong defensive front, fast linebackers and secondary and do a really good job of playing together and playing hard,” Petrino said. “So we’ve got a great challenge there and have to be able to mix the run and the pass and be balanced, not just counting on one phase running or passing. It should be fun and exciting for us to have Game Day back again. I can’t wait to get started in the preparation tomorrow.”

Out for season: Backup running back Jeremy Smith is out for the season with a foot injury. Petrino said Smith, a senior, fractured a bone in his right foot Thursday in practice. Malik Williams, another senior, replaced Smith as the No. 2 tailback on the depth chart and ran for 149 yards at UNC.

Smith rushed five times for eight yards in the win over Purdue two weeks ago. He had 382 yards and eight touchdowns last season as the Cards’ red-zone running back.

Reggie Bonnafon is still listed as Louisville’s starting running back, but he wasn’t a factor against the Tar Heels. Petrino said freshman Colin Wilson will move into the three-deep at tailback.
Wilson (6-1, 221) is almost recovered from hand surgery that has sidelined him for the past month. He dressed and warmed up at North Carolina, but didn’t play.

“We’ve got a young guy who is really starting to come along and get better,” Petrino said of Wilson. “He’s big. He’s got tons of talent. We like him a lot, so we’re going to have to get him cranked up and going.”

Petrino also said that cornerback Jaire Alexander, who missed the UNC game with a knee injury, is still day-to-day, but “has made a lot of improvement.”

Senior Ronald Walker started in Alexander’s place and made seven tackles. Freshman Russ Yeast also played.

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