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3 keys to Louisville-Florida State, the Cardinals’ biggest home game in a decade

The season's first official top-10 battle should be decided by FSU’s ability to control the line of scrimmage on defense, Dalvin Cook’s breakout potential, and, as always, turnovers.

NCAA Football: Louisville at Florida State Glenn Beil-USA TODAY Sports

This is usually where things go awry for Bobby Petrino.

In 2005, his Louisville Cardinals reached ninth in the country but got throttled at USF. They clawed back to 15th but lost the Gator Bowl by 11 to No. 12 Virginia Tech.

In 2006, Louisville reached third before losing at No. 15 Rutgers in a huge ESPN primetime game.

In 2010 at Arkansas, Petrino's Razorbacks were 12th when they got blown out at No. 7 Auburn. They rose to eighth and lost in the Sugar Bowl to No. 6 Ohio State.

In 2011, the Hogs got all the way to third and took an early lead at No. 1 LSU, then allowed a 41-3 run in a blowout loss.

There's always been a what-if, but those missed opportunities usually took place on someone else’s field. On Saturday, ESPN’s College GameDay is in Louisville, and Petrino's No. 10 Cardinals will host No. 2 Florida State in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium (with shiny new helmets, to boot) at noon ET on ABC.

This is the first battle of top-10 teams in Louisville since No. 5 UL beat No. 3 WVU in November 2006. Petrino has acknowledged the buzz and the opportunity, but has spent most of the week delivering coachspeak about focus and distractions and "going about our business the same way we have." Focus is easier talked about than executed.

The main attraction

NCAA Football: Louisville at Syracuse
Lamar Jackson
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Against Syracuse in the Carrier Dome, Lamar Jackson's first pass was a 72-yard touchdown strike to James Quick. His second was a 61-yarder to Jaylen Smith.

His first carry was a 7-yard touchdown. His second was a 72-yard touchdown. After a lengthy dry spell of four plays, he completed a 55-yard pass to Jamari Staples, then rushed 13 yards for another score. Louisville took a 28-7 lead on Dino Babers' Orange in 14 plays, then kept pouring it on -- self-inflicted wounds limited the Cardinals to a mere 62 points.

No, Syracuse’s defense doesn’t look very good. Neither does Charlotte’s. But in two games, Louisville has scored 132 points and gained 1,508 yards (10 per play). The Cardinals have scored 18 touchdowns, which is two more than Missouri scored in 12 games last year. That would be impressive against a pretty good NAIA defense.

Louisville is currently fifth in overall success rate and fourth in explosiveness (as measured by IsoPPP). Hard to top that.

The real tests start on Saturday, however.

Louisville’s next two conference opponents are FSU and Clemson, with a tricky trip to Marshall in between.

As limitless as Jackson’s ceiling has appeared over the last two weeks, the Cardinals could still hit a bumpy patch and Jackson’s September status as Heisman favorite could end up going about as well as most September favorites (Leonard Fournette, Geno Smith, etc.).

If Florida State is the team to take Jackson down a few rungs, it will likely be because of the Seminoles’ defensive front. FSU is fifth in defensive havoc rate early in the season, powered mostly by end DeMarcus Walker’s huge game against Ole Miss. He and freshman end Brian Burns have combined for 7.5 tackles for loss thus far.

In theory, if the Seminoles can control the line of scrimmage, they can force Jackson into passing downs (second-and-8 or more, third- or fourth-and-5 or more), where he’s less dangerous. He’s still as good a scrambler as anyone, and — oh, you need an example? Okay.

But he’s only 7 of 16 for 84 yards passing on passing downs through two games. He does his damage by avoiding second- or third-and-long altogether. UL is currently tops in the country on standard downs, with a 61 percent success rate.

On such downs, Jackson is 17 of 29 for 397 yards. Petrino has done a wonderful job of crafting a mobile-friendly offense for Jackson, calling plenty of passes on run-friendly downs and letting Jackson use his legs to catch up on the chains when the Cardinals do fall behind.

When he does pass, he uses every target. Six players have been targeted between five and 10 times so far, led by Staples and Quick (18 targets, 14 catches, 359 yards).

The quick passing could make FSU’s pass rushers flat-footed, and if Jackson isn’t pressured, he could take advantage of a banged-up Seminole secondary

Derwin James is out for a few weeks with cartilage damage in his knee and fellow safety Nate Andrews is only now returning after a calf injury. That could put a ton of pressure on sophomore A.J. Westbrook to avoid devastation in the back.

FSU will not only have to force passing downs against a team that is completing 59 percent of its standard-downs passes and is currently first in the country in opportunity rate (percentage of carries gaining at least five yards). The Noles will also have to hem in the unhemmable on passing downs ... while minding everybody else on the field, too. As FSU head coach Jimbo Fisher said this week, "They’re very exotic on third down, and he has an arm."

Louisville has to make stops, too

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Florida State
Deondre Francois
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

With a redshirt freshman, Deondre Francois, at quarterback, it was fair to assume FSU would lean pretty heavily on star running back Dalvin Cook. But in the first test against Ole Miss, that wasn’t an option. The Rebels were gearing up to stop Cook on standard downs, and FSU’s patchwork offensive line was getting overwhelmed.

Cook averaged just 4 yards per carry, and FSU was forced to punt on three of its first four drives. The Seminoles had to lean on Francois to attempt a comeback. It worked.

While falling behind by a 28-6 margin, FSU averaged only 3.4 yards per play. While outscoring the Rebels 39-6 the rest of the way, the Noles averaged 6.8.

Francois was reminded to use his own mobility, and he did so with great effect. Between that and passes to efficient options like Cook (seven catches for 101 yards), slot receiver Kermit Whitfield (five for 53), and tight end Ryan Izzo (three for 41), FSU was able to use Ole Miss’ aggressiveness against it.

Louisville’s pretty damn aggressive itself

Todd Grantham’s defense ranked 13th in havoc rate last season and, despite playing much of the year with their backups because of blowouts, the Cardinals rank 36th so far this year.

Now, aggression and havoc don’t have a perfect correlation with quality. Louisville also gave up 27 gains of 30-plus yards last season (62nd in FBS) and has given up seven of 20-plus so far in 2016 (45th). The Cardinals rank 66th in Def. S&P+ and are allowing 5.3 points per scoring opportunity thus far (94th).

If you can avoid disaster, you can create some for yourself.

There’s been plenty of both so far for FSU. The Noles rank 84th in passing-downs sack rate allowed, but when Francois gets a pass off on PDs, he’s nearly perfect: 18 of 26, 282 yards, no picks. As good as his efficient options have been, outside receivers Travis Rudolph and Bobo Wilson have combined to catch 26 of 37 balls for 357 yards and a success rate over 60 percent.

This will be a new experience for Louisville: defending a team that actually might run the ball

Even filtering out garbage time, pass-happy Charlotte and Syracuse threw 62 percent of the time on standard downs, when teams usually pass 40 percent of the time.

Even if Cook ended up more of a decoy against Ole Miss than anticipated, he’s still Cook. And if he ends up with a breakout game, FSU will be well set up to carry on in a shootout.

The biggest issue is the support system. Fullback Freddie Stevenson is out with an ankle injury, and projected starting guards Kareem Are and Wilson Bell have combined for one start thus far.

S&P+ projection: FSU 39, Louisville 36

Win probability: FSU 57%

The three keys to this game, in my opinion, are FSU’s ability to control the line of scrimmage on defense, Cook’s breakout potential and turnovers. The first two are obvious, and the third is always important.

Louisville’s only offensive problem last week was sloppiness. The Cardinals fumbled six times and lost two, while Jackson was picked off once. Louisville turned the ball over three times in SU territory, and while it didn’t matter much in the Carrier Dome, it would be crippling to do so against FSU.

Meanwhile, FSU has been a little bit lucky with the bounces. The Noles have recovered eight of 11 fumbles for the season, and opponents have been able to hold onto only one of 11 defensed passes. If that luck turns, or if the Cardinals’ star offensive attraction dominates more than FSU’s, Louisville fans might be rushing the field on Saturday.