On paper, the numbers themselves jumped off the page. The junior quarterback completed 25 of 39 passes for 393 yards and threw three touchdowns. He was just as dangerous on the ground, stringing together 132 rushing yards and adding three more scores.
His 525 total yards represented the most ever by an opposing player in a single game against UNC. The previous record of 479, set by Arizona State quarterback Andrew Walter, had stood for 15 years.
But even without the numbers, Jackson’s play told the story.
It did when he twisted cornerback Patrice Rene twice with juke moves on the way to a 43-yard touchdown run and when he casually avoided a sack from an unblocked defender before throwing a perfect spiral for a 75-yard touchdown pass. Even from three yards out, Jackson made a quarterback keeper up the middle for a touchdown look impressive with a split-second cut to the outside and a goal-line extension.
As head coach Larry Fedora concisely put it: “He made some things happen today that most people can’t do.”
Knowing it would need to improve in nearly every aspect of its game following last week’s 35-30 loss to California, the UNC defense more or less had an idea of what to expect from Louisville (2-0) and Jackson. The Cardinals would base everything they did around their elusive quarterback while also getting their top wide receivers and running backs involved in the action.
In the end, that’s what happened. UNC (0-2) saw what was coming, but couldn’t do anything to stop the Cardinals from racking up 705 yards of total offense. It was UNC’s worst defensive showing since the 2015 Russell Athletic Bowl, in which Baylor recorded 756 yards against the Tar Heels.
“They did exactly what we thought they would do,” safety Donnie Miles said. “They did exactly what (defensive coordinator John Papuchis) said they were gonna do, and at times, we made plays. At times, we didn’t.”
While Jackson’s final stats were certainly impressive, this was not the typical performance in which he sometimes runs circles around an opposing defense. At least it didn’t start out that way.
From the get-go, UNC struggled to stop the Cardinals from moving the ball up the field, but were at least able to finish drives well defensively. In the first half, Louisville’s four trips within UNC’s 40-yard line amounted to just 13 points, as the Cardinals scored a touchdown, but settled for a pair of field goals and turned the ball over on downs once.
But as the game went on, Louisville found ways to exploit the Tar Heels, and it started with Jackson’s arm. While he’s famous for what he can do as a runner, Jackson’s ability as a pure passer was evident on Saturday.
“What I’ve seen on film, he likes to tuck and run,” defensive end Malik Carney said. “Today he showed otherwise. He tried to show off his passing abilities.”
Time and time again, Jackson looked comfortable in the pocket, had time to be deliberate with his decisions, and more often than not had a myriad of open receivers to choose from. Jaylen Smith finished with a career-high 183 yards on nine catches, while Dez Fitzpatrick was wide open on both of his touchdown receptions.
Starting from Louisville’s opening possession of the game, UNC was vulnerable on underneath routes, and there were several occasions where a Cardinal wideout hauled in a catch without a defender nearby.
“I don’t know if you can say that’s because of Lamar Jackson,” Fedora said. “We have to do a much better job on that back end.”
Jackson aside, many of North Carolina’s defensive issues were self-inflicted. Miles, Carney and linebacker Cayson Collins, the three UNC defenders who spoke after the loss, explained their struggles by referencing the defense’s inability to communicate well with each other and properly implement the calls and assignments coming in from the sideline.
When asked what was causing those communication problems, Collins offered an honest response.
“I couldn’t tell you,” he said.
That’s a tough pill to swallow for a defense expected to be the strength of UNC in 2017.