Slowing reigning Heisman winner Jackson a tall task for Tar Heels

Louisville quarterback will face three N.C. teams in ACC play, starting Saturday with North Carolina

Jamie Rhodes—USA Today Sports
Louisville Cardinals quarterback Lamar Jackson stiff-arms NC State Wolfpack safety Josh Jones (11) last season at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium. (Jamie Rhodes— / USA Today Sports)

CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina’s mistake-prone defense made California’s Ross Bowers, a quarterback making his first college start, look like a Heisman Trophy candidate in its season opening loss to the Golden Bears on Saturday.

That doesn’t bode well for the Tar Heels’ prospects now that their next assignment is slowing the guy that actually has college football’s most prestigious award in his personal trophy case.

Coach Larry Fedora summed up the challenge of defending Louisville’s Lamar Jackson succinctly at his regular weekly press conference Monday.

“He’s a guy where you can do everything perfectly and he can (still) make you look bad,” Fedora said. “He can do some things and has some gifts other people don’t have.”

Louisville at North Carolina
Kenan Memorial Stadium, Chapel Hill  |  Saturday, noon  | ESPN

Jackson’s dynamic combination of running and passing ability helped him set an ACC record with 51 combined touchdowns on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore in 2016. His bid to become the first two-time winner since Ohio State’s Archie Griffin in 1974-75 got off to a flying start last week when he accounted for 485 of his team’s 524 yards in a close win at Purdue.

Fedora’s Tar Heels will be the first of three state ACC teams to get a crack at stopping Jackson when he and his Cardinals come to Kenan Stadium for a noon kickoff Saturday. Louisville will also visit the Old North State on Oct. 5 for a Thursday night matchup against NC State and again on Nov. 11 when they play at Wake Forest.

Fedora isn’t the type to solicit advice about anything, let alone how to coach his team. But if he was to seek out suggestions on how to contain Louisville’s talented playmaker, he might consider placing a call to his Deacons’ counterpart Dave Clawson.

Though it might not appear so because of the 44-12 final score, no one on Louisville’s schedule defended Jackson better than Clawson’s team for the first three quarters last November. Wake had Jackson visibly rattled after sacking him seven times and forcing three fumbles while taking a 12-10 lead into the final 15 minutes.

Louisville eventually rallied and broke the game open by scoring 34 points in the final period.

“We had a great scheme … just contain the guy,” Deacons defensive end Wendell Dunn said this summer at the ACC’s Football Kickoff media event in Charlotte. “We didn’t just go out there running around with our heads cut off. He’s fast, we knew what he’s capable of. If you can contain him and hit him as much as you can, you’ve got him.”

That’s easier said than done.

Just ask NC State, whose highly regarded defensive front was torched for 355 yards passing and 76 yards rushing by Jackson the last time it faced him on the way to a 54-13 pounding at the hands of the Cardinals.

Although Jackson was sacked 47 times in 2016, more than any other quarterback in the ACC, Fedora noted that the worst thing a defense can do is sell itself out by pursuing the dual-threat quarterback too aggressively.

“The scheme that they run with him takes advantage of all of his skill set and you’re going to have to be really sound in your rush lanes,” Fedora said. “You’re going to have to be under control because if you give him a lane and people are covered, he’s going to beat you. You’ve got to really squeeze the lanes and try to keep him in there. You can’t get too far up the field. You’ve got to be very controlled in those rush lanes.

“When you have a quarterback that’s not mobile, you can turn it loose a little more. But when you’ve got a guy that can break your back with his legs, you’ve got to be much more controlled. You’ve got to constrict the lanes.”

UNC safety Donnie Miles, who picked up his first career interception against Cal on Saturday, said he’s looking forward to the challenge of matching up against the nation’s top player.

“It’s going to be exciting,” Miles said. “In the offseason, I go through and I watch film on everybody we play, especially if we haven’t played them before. When that time comes, we’re going to come out here in the Tar Pit, compete and show what our defense is about.”

Linebacker Andre Smith is nothing if not confident about his team’s ability to contain Jackson.

“It definitely won’t be the Lamar Jackson show, so if he’s going to beat us with his arm, then well, he’s not going to beat us at all,” Smith said after practice Wednesday. “He’s not going to beat us. We’re just going to stop anything that he tries to do.”

If all else fails, Smith and his Tar Heel teammates might consider the advice of the Wolfpack’s Doeren, who was asked last season if he could think of anything that might slow the reigning Heisman Trophy winner down.

“Maybe some rotten chicken at the meal Friday night,” Doeren said with an awkward chuckle. “Maybe some salmonella.”