Hit Lamar Jackson right away. Send defensive ends upfield to immediately attack him. Don't let Louisville's dynamic quarterback get started with his legs.
That was the plan Marshall defensive coordinator Chuck Heater designed for last Saturday's game. For most of the first half, the strategy looked like the smartest idea a coach has put forth yet to slow down Jackson.
"That kind of took him out of some of the things he wanted to do," Heater said. "Everyone's going to come up with some thoughts. Nobody had really done that so that part of it actually worked throughout the game."
But Marshall could only hold on for so long. Louisville receivers ran free too often, Marshall's ineffective offense kept its defense on the field way too long and Cardinals coach Bobby Petrino skillfully adjusted to counter the pressure. On a night when Marshall gave college football a possible blueprint to slow down Jackson, Louisville still scored 59 points as Jackson threw for 417 yards and five touchdowns and ran for 62 yards and two scores.
As No. 3 Louisville travels to No. 5 Clemson for a high-profile showdown Saturday, perhaps the most fascinating question of this young season is how to defend Jackson. How does a defense slow down the lethal combination of Petrino's mind coaching Jackson's arm and legs?
"Every time you put him on the field it's like walking a beach filled with land mines," Heater said. "You might avoid them for a while, but eventually you're going to go step on them. If you're a team like Clemson, you've got to keep him off the field. The best defense is having him on the sideline."
Jackson ranks 12th nationally in passing yards per game (332.5) and eighth in rushing (131.5). He is so explosive that he averages nearly a first down every time he touches the ball (9.93 yards per play).
It's important to note Louisville has so far faced only weak defenses: Syracuse (112th in yards per play), Marshall (120th), Florida State (121st) and Charlotte (124th). Clemson ranks second in yards per play. Then again, Jackson exploited a talented but ultimately flawed Seminoles defense in a 63-20 thrashing two weeks ago.
Petrino is dialing up so many different looks that it's an "accordion effect," explained CBS Sports analyst Aaron Taylor, who called the Louisville-Marshall game last week.
Louisville does so well stretching a defense from sideline to sideline that, as soon as it flattens, the Cardinals call power inside runs up the middle. Taylor compares the style to how Auburn once succeeded with Cam Newton and Nick Marshall at quarterback.
"More times than not, the defenses block themselves," Taylor said. "There was a touchdown against Syracuse [by Jackson] where only one of the five defenders got off a block and the other had their face crossed or whiffed. That kid is so freaking dynamic on the zone read. He's not even reading the [defensive] end. He's pulling the ball and saying, 'I'm going to outrun you.' The lanes he has to run through are ridiculous."
That's what made Marshall's strategy work so well: The defense didn't give Jackson the option to pull the ball. Early in the game, Heater literally sent his defensive ends on every play to attack Jackson.
Marshall got a third-down sack by rushing three linemen and blitzing two linebackers. Another time, Jackson got stuffed on a third-and-12 draw play that resulted in a rare Louisville field goal attempt.
Marshall's ends often won their one-on-one battles with Louisville offensive linemen and the Thundering Herd got 10 quarterback hurries and one sack on Jackson's first 21 drop-back passes. Jackson threw a poor interception while under pressure. He should have kept running but threw off his back foot while fading away and didn't get enough air under the ball.
Jackson started the game by completing only 6-of-16 passes. One was a long touchdown when a Marshall cornerback fell down. Jackson is only a 59-percent passer on the season (78th nationally) and has a higher percentage of incompletions when throwing to the left side of the field.
"I don't complete the amount of passes a game I should," Jackson said. "That's one of my biggest downfalls. That's really one of the things I don't like."
Jackson said he wants a 90-95 percent completion rate since that would be an A grade. Of course, that's not realistic. Don't tell that to Jackson, who has given himself grades of D and F in separate games this season.
Jackson has come a long way as a passer compared to 2015, when he started as a true freshman. He often stared down receivers and took off running since he didn't know the plays.
"I didn't want to be labeled as an athlete coming out of high school," Jackson said. "I wanted to be known as a quarterback like everybody else. People didn't see that. Louisville did."
After his slow start against Marshall, Jackson completed 12 of his next 16 passes, including a perfect scoring drive before the half. By the third quarter, what once looked like great Marshall defense turned into six Louisville scoring drives of one minute or less.
By sending defensive ends at Jackson, Marshall attacked him on the zone read at his mesh point -- the spot with the quarterback-running back exchange. Jackson is incredibly dangerous in the open field because of his speed and ability to cut without slowing down. He didn't gain positive rushing yards against Marshall until the opening minute of the second quarter.
"Most people play their ends on the quarterback but play them slow, but then you can't tackle him," Heater said. "We attacked him at the mesh point to take the ball out of his hands as far as the option."
Louisville eventually countered. Petrino kept his tight end in to block Jackson sweeps and called pass plays to get quicker throws. If he had to do it again, Heater would still send defensive ends at Jackson, but he believes a good leverage defender is needed on the tight end side.
Louisville's hot start is particularly fascinating because Petrino is finally getting a chance to coach a dual-threat quarterback. When he became coach of the Atlanta Falcons in 2007, Petrino was hired to help make Michael Vick a better passer. Vick went to prison over dog fighting felony charges and never took a snap for Petrino, who left with a 3-10 record.
Before Jackson in 2015, Petrino never worked with a real dual-threat quarterback in his previous 11 years as a head coach. The most rushing yards by a Petrino quarterback had been Louisville's Stefan Lefors with 405 in 2003. Jackson already has 526 rushing yards in four games this year.
"The progressions are something he's still developing and probably the world you'd like to get him into," Heater said. "If you're playing your evils, you want to make him beat you by being a pocket passer. Cover people so you don't have people running wide open, which we had a lot against us. That's a result of the Petrino scheme. He's got the kid well taught. For example, we open up the middle of the field in quarters coverage. The kid sees it. He'll throw a deep ball over the top."
So this is what Petrino and Vick might have looked like. Louisville uses a diverse offense with no-huddle tempo, pistol formations, zone read plays, power inside runs and quarterback counter runs with tight ends and running backs as lead blockers.
"As a result, nobody is getting in run fits, they're all getting out of their gaps and they're not disciplined with their eye," Taylor said. "Those dudes [Louisville's offensive linemen] block for like half a second to the left, they don't even touch their guy because they're stunting, and it's a touchdown. He's so special, and I'm not saying he does it by himself, but he makes everybody around him because he's an equalizer, an eraser."
That raises the very important question: What happens if The Eraser gets erased by injury?
"If he goes down, you cut off the head of the snake," Taylor said. "That's one of the weaknesses of this team."
In the first three weeks, Jackson was so elusive that he rarely took direct shots. Marshall got some hits on him last week. With the Cardinals comfortably ahead 52-7 against the Herd, Jackson initially left the game. Petrino reinserted Jackson and the first-team offense up 31 with 13:25 left, creating a stressful six minutes for Louisville fans on Jackson's next scoring drive.
Jackson averages 15.3 carries per game. Houston's Greg Ward Jr., another valuable dual-threat quarterback in the College Football Playoff race, carries the ball 17 times a game.
"You just wonder how long [Jackson] can last because of the way he plays," Heater said. "He's very aggressive with a tremendous intent to finish. He carries the ball a lot like a running back. He's not a running back. They're obviously playing him to win the game. I just think behind closed doors that would be my question: How many times can he carry the ball like that? Maybe forever."