Scouting the opponent: No. 20 Duke football must be on alert for Thrash's hands, Jordan's legs against Louisville

Cornerback Al Blades Jr. swarms Florida State's Trey Benson in Duke's Saturday defeat.
Cornerback Al Blades Jr. swarms Florida State's Trey Benson in Duke's Saturday defeat.

In its biggest test of the year to date, Duke faltered, falling on the road to Florida State 38-20 after holding a 20-17 lead entering the final quarter. This loss dropped the Blue Devils to 5-2 overall and 2-1 in league play. However, head coach Mike Elko’s squad has no time to sour on its loss, as Duke will hit the road for the second-straight week to take on an ACC opponent, this time Louisville. The Blue Devils need a bounceback win desperately, and a victory against the upstart Cardinals would be a major boon to their chances to reach the ACC title game in December.

Let’s dive into the dangers that Louisville presents for Duke Saturday.

The Cardinals are coming off a 8-5 season in 2022, but they have been a whole different beast this season. After head coach Scott Satterfield darted for Cincinnati in the offseason, the decision makers at Louisville selected former Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm, who is a former quarterback for the Cardinals, to be the next man at the helm of the program. In Brohm’s first season, his squad has been fantastic, jumping out to a 6-1 record to start the year that includes a 33-20 thumping of Notre Dame, a victory that put the Cardinals on the map as a serious contender in the ACC. Despite losing its last contest to Pittsburgh, Louisville is still in prime position to reach the conference championship, and Saturday’s matchup will go a long way in determining postseason play for both squads. 

“You know, they didn't get the result they wanted in their last game. So I'm sure they're going to be hungry to come out and play their best football and obviously, we've got a lot on the line,” Elko said. “So we're going to be hungry to come out and play our best football and so it should be a great game between two really good football teams.”

Outside of Satterfield, Louisville also lost arguably the most important piece of the puzzle this offseason, as quarterback Malik Cunningham moved on to the NFL. During his time at Louisville, Cunningham was one of the best signal callers in program history, passing for 9,664 career yards and 70 touchdowns while also adding 50 scores on the ground. This departure left extremely big shoes to fill in the Louisville offense, as is custom nowadays, Brohm hit the portal to find a familiar face, and California transfer and former Boilermakers quarterback Jack Plummer has been the leader of the Cardinal offense this season. So far this season, the senior has performed admirably, completing his passes at a 63.5% clip and throwing for 1,901 yards, the second most in the conference, through seven weeks. Plummer has also shown a tendency to turn the ball over, throwing two interceptions in three different contests, a trend Duke certainly hopes will continue when the Gilbert, Ariz., native faces the opportunistic Blue Devil defense. 

“It's a really dynamic scheme,” Elko said. “They do a lot of different things to get the ball in their playmakers’ hands, really intricate play action game, a lot of different run schemes. It's a really, really well-coached, well-put together offense.”  

Plummer also happens to have one of the best weapons in the conference at his disposal, as redshirt senior wideout Jamari Thrash has been spectacular this season. The LaGrange, Ga., native comes to the ACC after spending four years at Georgia State, where he established himself as one of the best receivers in both the Sun Belt and the country. In 2022, Thrash broke out for the Panthers, hauling in 61 receptions for 1,122 yards, a mark that was 13th in the FBS last season. Through seven games, it is clear that his talents translated over to the Power 5, as the pass catcher already has 39 catches for 639 yards and six touchdowns, with his yardage total currently the second-highest in the conference. For a Duke defense that prides itself on stopping the pass, the game plan will have to key in on stopping Thrash. 

While having a high flying offense, Brohm is also not afraid to pound the rock. However, the decision to run the football is easier to make when one gets to hand the ball off to an elite running back, and Louisville has one in Jawhar Jordan. The redshirt junior returns for the Cardinals after being their leading rusher last year, and he has only built on his success. The Long Island, N.Y., native and former Syracuse transfer, despite missing most of Louisville’s loss to Pittsburgh due to injury, ranks second in yards and tied for third in touchdowns in the ACC with 661 and eight, respectively. Jordan has game-breaking potential, with no better evidence than his monster performance against the Fighting Irish, where he torched them for 143 yards and two scores on the ground. In addition, the all-purpose back also returns kicks for Louisville, making him arguably its most valuable player. Jordan is listed as questionable for Saturday’s game, but if he plays, Duke will have to devote major attention to him at all times. 

“I think the Jordan kid was one of the more talented running backs in this league, if not the most talented and certainly the most explosive from a speed standpoint, in the making-miss standpoint that we've seen to this point,” Elko said. “Jamari Thrash on the outside has been extremely productive all year, he has been a mismatch for people.”

Louisville also sports one of the best defenses in the conference, allowing just 20.6 points per game, tied for fourth-lowest in the ACC. In particular, the Cardinals excel at stopping the run, conceding just 97.1 yards on the ground on average. Against a Duke team that loves running the football, the matchup in the trenches will likely be the deciding factor in the game. 

“Defensively, I think they're number two in the league in stopping the run, they're giving up less than 100 yards a game rushing, they're very physical upfront,” Elko said. “They've got a really, really sound front for another team that will load the box and really make it difficult and challenging for you to run the football.”

While Duke features star left tackle Graham Barton, Louisville possesses a stud of its own on the opposite sides, as defensive lineman Ashton Gillotte has established himself as a force to be reckoned with up front. In 2022, the then-sophomore garnered All-ACC Honorable Mention honors, as he tallied six sacks and seven tackles for loss. In his junior season, Gillotte is on track to be much more than an honorable mention, already surpassing his previous sack total with 6.5, the third-most in the league, and being named a CBS Sports Midseason All-American. The Boca Raton, Fla., native will be the top priority for a Duke offensive line that has had success at keeping quarterbacks Riley Leonard and Henry Belin IV upright. 

On the back end, Devin Neal is the name to know. Louisville has picked opposing quarterbacks off eight times this season, and Neal has been the benefactor for three of these giveaways. The junior is in his first year at Louisville after transferring from Baylor, where he was a solid member of the defensive back rotation. However, the safety has come into his own for the Cardinals, already making 37 tackles and having four passes defensed to his name. The Lexington, Ky., native will be lurking back deep all Saturday afternoon, and whoever starts under center for Duke will have to stay alert if they don’t want to grant him a fourth interception. 

Louisville will absolutely be a tough task for the Blue Devils in their second straight road game, as it possesses a top-five offense and defense in the ACC. But if Duke can neutralize Thrash and Jordan while finding a way to continue its running dominance to some degree, Elko’s team should leave the state of Kentucky controlling its own destiny to make the ACC Championship Game.


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