Jackets, Cardinals face off under the lights

Quarterback Jeff Sims (10) looks to complete a pass to fellow freshman and backfield mate Jahmyr Gibbs (21) in their game against Syracuse on September 26th. // Photo courtesy of ACC Media

After a thrilling week one win, Tech football has dropped two straight to 14th-ranked UCF and unranked Syracuse. Quarterback Jeff Sims and the rest of the team look to bounce back Friday night (10/9). Their opponent, Louisville, has fared similarly so far, winning week one against Western Kentucky before losing a pair of ranked matchups to #17 Miami and #21 Pitt. FPI gives Louisville a roughly 72% chance to win and the spread sits at around -4.5 in favor of Louisville.

Louisville beat the Hilltoppers in week one on the back of a solid offensive showing. Another 30-plus point game in week two left them short of a win against Miami, and Pitt’s defense shut them down a week later, holding them to 20 points as the Panthers secured the win. Tech’s opening win at Florida State was followed by turnover-laden losses to UCF and Syracuse, with both opponents scoring 37 or more in the defeats.

A number of interesting matchups and position duels will play out under the lights, most notably the quarterback play. Malik Cunningham has seen action in all three of his seasons at Louisville, and had a solid campaign last year under center. However, he has already matched his interception total from last season in the first three games of 2020 and is averaging a single yard per carry on the ground. Jeff Sims is both the leading rusher and passer for the Jackets, amassing almost 700 yards through the air and another nearly 200 on the ground. Sims sat while Jordan Yates took the field for part of the Syracuse game after his 4th pick of the afternoon, but will likely start again for game four.

Despite the yardage outbursts, the offense has struggled due to a number of costly turnovers, currently near the top of the list with 12 total. Adding in continued kicking woes to the tune of only one made field goal this season, Tech’s offense is only managing 19 points per game despite totaling north of 450 yards on average. Multiple drives in every game so far have ended with a turnover or missed kick while in the red zone, leaving possible points on the table at the end of good drives.

The two teams’ run games also differ distinctly. Louisville’s Javian Hawkins accounts for about two-thirds of their rushing yards, while no Tech player even has a third on his own. Collins’ system spreads touches out between players, so any one of a number of teammates can contribute on a given play, creating a true running back by committee approach.

The kicking battle for the Jackets so far this season has been met with limited success, with neither kicker scoring more than 5 points. Week one starter Jude Kelley has made one of four field goals and two of three extra points, while replacement Gavin Stewart has hit all four extra points but missed his only field goal attempt. In contrast, Louisville kicker James Turner has yet to miss a kick this year, converting all 11 extra points along with his four field goal attempts.

Both Tech and Louisville have coughed up the football an outsize number of times, and the turnover battle may decide the outcome of this game. While Tech ranks near the top of the entire NCAA with their dozen turnovers, the Cardinals are not far behind, sitting in the top five in the country with eight giveaways. Malik Cunningham has thrown five picks and the team has added another three fumbles to rival Sims’ eight picks and Tech’s four fumbles. Tech has forced twice as many turnovers though, and may be able to take advantage of ball security woes to grab some extra possessions or short fields.

Look for the Jackets to continue to use a balanced attack to work a defense that allows 30 points a game, with around a dozen players likely to get a touch at some point on Friday evening. Tech will want to slow Hawkins and pressure Cunningham to try and force turnovers and negative plays. Short fields will limit giveaway chances for the Jackets and give the offense more chances to turn drives into points. Limiting penalties and other avoidable mistakes will be key in this winnable matchup with another team looking to avoid a three game skid.