The game had ended, but Louisville junior quarterback Lamar Jackson kept running.
After the on-the-field TV interview and selfies with Kenan Stadium’s corner of Louisville fans, Jackson bounced around a tail of reporters and photographers down the concrete tunnel to the locker room. You’d think Jackson would be used to winning by now, but the spring in his jog, the high-fives to Louisville officials and the echoes of his cheers in the tunnel would suggest otherwise.
But Saturday wasn’t exactly business as usual. Going into the 47-35 win over North Carolina, the reigning Heisman quarterback felt like he had something to prove.
When UNC junior linebacker Andre Smith told reporters at Tuesday’s football practice that the defense would stop “anything (Jackson) tries to do,” Jackson was paying attention.
“What’s his name? Lamar Jackson?” Smith said on Tuesday. “I’m kidding. I’m kidding.”
Jackson didn’t find it funny. On Friday, he tweeted a retort: “Better have that same energy when you see me cause I’m going super Saiyan!”
“Super Saiyan” — a term from a video game — proved to be an understatement. Jackson’s 525 yards on offense were the most ever earned against UNC by a single player: a total of 132 running yards and 393 passing yards. He threw three touchdowns and ran for three more. The Tar Heels defense managed two sacks.
“I thought about what they said,” Jackson said. “And I was like, I just like to play football. And when you talk, there’s gonna be a dog fight.”
On Jackson’s end, it looked more like a dance. He grew comfortable in the pocket despite two sacks and a few overthrown passes, and he seamlessly darted around defenders. At one point, he turned an almost-sack into a first-down conversion.
“If he takes off and runs, you just look, you find the nearest opposite-color jersey, you just block, ’cause you know it’s real,” Louisville freshman wide receiver Dez Fitzpatrick said. “When he starts to run, anything can happen.”
Of course, making one of the best quarterbacks in FBS history angry before he entered Kenan didn’t exactly help the Tar Heels’ cause, but UNC doomed itself by failing to stop the running backs.
The Cardinals totaled 312 rushing yards. Malik Williams led the team’s run game with 149 yards, averaging 11.5 yards per carry to Jackson’s 132 net rushing yards. The last time Jackson did not lead the Cardinals on the ground was during their 59-28 win against Marshall on Sept. 24, 2016.
“To be able to block the front and run the ball with a running back I think helped open up everything,” Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino said. “Helped open up play-action game, helped open up our passing game, got us into some third-and-medium, third-and manageable positions. That makes a huge difference for us.”
With productive running backs, Jackson could relax in the pocket. By the time the game ended, Jackson led the Louisville offense to total of 705 yards – the third-most allowed by UNC’s defense.
Petrino added that the UNC defense made the Cardinals work for their yardage. The Cardinals spent the whole week poring over the details of UNC’s defense, and it looks like Smith’s comments from Tuesday’s practice ignited their ambition.
“We knew what Lamar could do …” Fitzpatrick said. “We kind of blocked (what Smith said) out a little bit, didn’t pay too much attention to it. But we definitely have to make them pay.”