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Houston overpowers Louisville, Lamar Jackson to end their playoff hopes

The Louisville Cardinals' playoff hopes are done after a 26-point loss against the Houston Cougars. How did Houston dominate the trenches and stop Heisman leader Lamar Jackson?

It seems no one told Houston there was little at stake for the Cougars on Thursday night. Facing Louisville in a matchup that could have had College Football Playoff implications for the Cougars had the season gone differently, Houston looked the part of a playoff team. The Cardinals, the team that actually did enter TDECU Stadium with playoff hopes, looked anything but, and now those hopes are over.

Houston pummeled No. 5 Louisville 36–10, dominating the game in every phase and opening up a 31–0 lead before the Cardinals got on the board. Here are three thoughts on the Cougars’ victory:

1. Louisville’s offensive line never arrived in Houston, so the Cougars feasted

In games with a scoreline as lopsided as 36–10, it can be hard to identify one factor that most contributed to the outcome. Not Thursday night.

Louisville’s offensive line was absolutely atrocious, resulting in 11 sacks on quarterback Lamar Jackson. The Heisman contender was never able to get comfortable in the pocket, and even with his otherworldly athleticism, Houston’s defense had the speed to corral him before he could break away resulting in short gains or throwaways. The Cardinals similarly could get nothing going on designed run plays, gaining just 101 yards on 40 carries.

Even when Louisville’s offensive line wasn’t giving up yards through sacks and tackles for loss, it repeatedly cost the Cardinals yards through penalties. Louisville committed 15 penalties for 114 yards, the bulk of them false starts and holding flags. That Houston’s final points of the game came on an intentional grounding call in the end zone for a safety was a fitting conclusion.

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With Jackson stymied, the clear best player on the field was Houston true freshman defensive tackle Ed Oliver, who essentially lived in the backfield Thursday night until a knee injury kept him out for the fourth quarter. Oliver regularly abused right guard Kiola Mahoni, powering past him to blow up plays in the backfield or forcing him to hold Oliver to prevent another sack.

But Oliver’s biggest impact came on a running play in the first quarter when he shed a block and managed to get an arm tackle on Louisville running back Brandon Radcliff. Let’s pause here: Arm tackles aren’t supposed to work, particularly against a back like Radcliff who entered Thursday’s game averaging 7.2 yards per carry. Yet with one arm, Oliver managed to stop Radcliff in his tracks and poke the ball free. The fumble, one of three on the night by Louisville, helped Houston build a 10–0 lead by the end of the first quarter as it raced out to a big advantage it never relinquished.

2. Lamar Jackson’s struggles add new drama to the Heisman Trophy race

Despite the margin of victory, Jackson didn’t have a horrid night, finishing the game with 211 yards passing, 33 yards rushing, a touchdown and a fumble. He simply had no chance to succeed as the pocket collapsed around him and provided nowhere to run.

Still, Jackson’s numbers were easily his lowest of the season, casting some doubt on a Heisman candidacy that was heretofore essentially flawless. Playing in primetime on national television with no other games to distract Heisman voters, Jackson was unable to shine, no matter who was ultimately more responsible for his limited production. His fumbled late in the third quarter halted a promising drive at the Houston eight-yard line, just as Louisville appeared to be finding some offensive rhythm that might have allowed it to at least make the margin more respectable.

Houston quarterback Greg Ward Jr., who entered the season with Heisman aspirations of his own, was clearly the more effective signal-caller Thursday night. He completed 25 of 44 passes for 233 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Ward ensured Louisville couldn’t get back in the game by stringing together clock-killing drives late in the second half.

Despite Jackson’s inability to produce Thursday night, his lead entering the game was so large that he should still be the clear frontrunner in the race. Much like Clemson and Michigan suffered their first losses of the season last week but remained in the top four in the playoff rankings, Jackson’s performance against Houston was his first “loss” of the season in a race he led handily. Fellow Heisman contenders like Alabama’s Jalen Hurts and Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett have had their off-nights, and their best games have paled in comparison to Jackson’s unbelievable production this season.

What Jackson’s performance does do, however, is shake up the seemingly unending wave of momentum he was riding through the first 11 weeks of the season. His odds of winning the race had climbed to a ridiculous -5000, and there was talk that he had essentially clinched it already. With Louisville unable to reach the ACC title game unless Clemson loses to Wake Forest on Saturday, the potential for someone else to shine in their final games of the regular season or a conference title game—for example, what if Barrett picks apart Michigan next week?—and close the season on a late surge has to be considered.

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3. The Cardinals’ playoff hopes are over, and the Big 12 is likely the big winner

Louisville already didn’t control its playoff destiny. At No. 5 in this week’s rankings and unable to reach the ACC title game without help, the Cardinals’ best shot to finish the season in the top four was for Clemson to fall to Wake Forest or for chaos and upsets in the other Power 5 conferences.

Now any considerations of hypothetical finishes are rendered moot. The Cardinals are out of playoff contention.

So who benefits from Louisville’s collapse? Every team on the playoff bubble to some extent, but mostly the Big 12’s playoff hopefuls. No. 9 Oklahoma and No. 14 West Virginia still cling to hope of earning a berth in the national semifinals but need a lot of help to do so. With Louisville and Clemson in the thick of the playoff race, the Big 12’s hopes were thin because even if Clemson lost in the ACC title game to the Coastal Division champion, Louisville would be well positioned to move up into the playoff, keeping a spot for the ACC. Now, if the Tigers choke against Wake Forest on Saturday, against South Carolina next week or in the conference title game, the ACC will simply fall out of playoff contention. That’s precisely the kind of chaos needed for a Big 12 team to sneak in. Oklahoma particularly benefits because its Week 1 loss to Houston looks much better now that the Sooners aren’t the only Power 5 team to fall to the Cougars this season.

Louisville’s defeat also raises the possibility that two Big Ten teams could make the playoff if Ohio State finishes 11–1 but doesn’t qualify for the Big Ten championship while Wisconsin or Penn State win the conference with two losses.