CRAWFORD | Making the call: Miami vs. Louisville - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Making the call: Miami vs. Louisville

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- If you're looking for a confident prediction on the University of Louisville's season-opening Atlantic Coast Conference game against Miami, this probably isn't the right place.

I can't remember having less of a true feel for how a team was going to perform than I do with this Louisville team heading into Bobby Petrino's second run as head coach. New coaches, new defensive scheme, new quarterback. There's too much newness to give any degree of confidence.

After a strong spring, quarterback Will Gardner struggled at times this fall to pick up the more complicated defensive looks he was seeing. But he's also a strong leader and good competitor, and has improved as fall camp progressed.

The loss of DeVante Parker is significant for Louisville, and not having Michael Dyer (if, in fact, they don't have him) robs them of a player who was rounding into top form and who has played in these kinds of national showcase games.

At the same time, Miami enters the game with a true freshman quarterback itself, and figures to rely heavily on the play of All-ACC running back Duke Johnson, who is averaging an impressive 6.7 yards per carry for his career. He's more than capable of carrying the Hurricanes to victory -- and helping them keep the ball out of the hands of U of L's offense.

Which brings us to two early keys. First, on offense. In the first Petrino era, U of L made a living off jumping all over visitors to Papa John's Cardinal Stadium early, putting them under pressure to scrap their game plan in favor of trying pass the ball more than they were comfortable doing. That's exactly what they need to do tonight. If U of L can feed off its "black out" crowd and get up a score or two early, it could allow its defense to commit even harder to taking away the run, thereby forcing a freshman quarterback to make more plays than perhaps the Hurricanes wanted to ask him to make. Think about this: Miami QB Brad Kaaya won't turn 19 until two days after this game.

Barring that, a second early key to watch in this game will be the play of U of L's defense. The Cardinals were the nation's No. 1 ranked defense a year ago, but lost seven starters from that group. They return plenty of talent, but have been making the transition to a 3-4 scheme, coached by former Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham.

If the Cardinals continue the solid tackling and ball pursuit they showed under Strong, they've got a good chance to win this one, maybe impressively. If they revert, look out. Johnson has added 15 pounds of muscle and is very capable of having a performance that puts him into the Heisman Trophy discussion, especially on this stage, making the outcome just as impressive for Miami in the other direction.

I tend to think that both coaches will be relatively conservative, with Miami coach Al Golden building his offensive attack around Johnson and U of L working off high-percentage passing and a steady diet of its deep running back corps. U of L still has plenty of dangerous targets at wide receiver. Expect Bobby Petrino to mix run and pass effectively, but I've watched him coach a number of openers. He doesn't like to put players in position to make big mistakes early.

Avoiding turnovers will be a key for Louisville. Teddy Bridgewater simply didn't throw interceptions last season. Gardner will need to be reliable with the ball against a Miami defense that forced 27 takeaways last season.

Offensive players to watch for Louisville: Dominique Brown at running back and tight end Gerald Christian. If these guys have big games things are going well for the Cardinals. On defense? Keith Brown is a Miami native who is going to have to be a playmaker. James Sample, a transfer from the University of Washington, should make his presence known quickly at safety.

Johnson is option No. 1, 2 and 3 for the Miami offense. Defensively, this is a talented and athletic group, that returns six starters from a year ago. That group is headed up by linebacker Denzel Perryman, "The President," as he's known in Miami. He's one of the biggest hitters in college football, is always around the ball, and is up for every major defensive award after leading the Hurricanes in tackles last season. Miami put a Go Pro camera on his helmet for its spring game and the video drew a quarter-million views on YouTube.

I'm picking U of L, 31-24. If the game were played in Miami, I'd probably pick it same score, the other way.

Louisville should benefit from the home environment, and the number of playmakers it has offense, even without Parker and Dyer.

And then there's this -- which I have to say did weigh in my pick: Petrino is 9-0 in season-openers. He's never lost one. He's also 29-10 in his career when he's had more than one week to get ready for an opponent.

Until somebody beats him in an opener -- especially a home opener -- I'm not picking against him.

Keep checking WDRB.com throughout the day for more game preview and analysis. UP NEXT: Notes, facts and figures.

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