Story by Blake Sandlin, Assistant Sports Editor
Murray State football will face a tall task this weekend when they head to the University of Louisville to take on reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson and company.
The game against the Football Bowl Subdivision’s 17th-ranked team will surely test the Racers, who fell last week to an Austin Peay team that has gone a combined 0-22 in the past two seasons.
The Racers’ offensive woes were brought to the forefront in last week’s 27-7 loss to Austin Peay. Murray State combined for a mere 38 rushing yards in the game, compared to the Governors’ 297. Freshman quarterback Corey Newble was held to just 50 yards in the air as they fell to 1-3 on the season.
Head Coach Mitch Stewart said in order for his team to compensate for deficiencies in the run game, they have to begin to establish a consistent attack in the air.
“The biggest way that we can help our run game is to establish some kind of passing game,” Stewart said. “Right now we’re just going short throw deep, short throw deep, short throw deep. We’ve got to get an intermediate passing game going.”
Stewart said his team will be aiming to regain some lost confidence in practice this week after an underwhelming offensive performance against the Govs.
“Obviously this is a big week for us because we’ve got a lot of things we have to accomplish in order to build back some confidence, especially on the offensive side of the ball,” Stewart said.
Both sides of the ball will need to be firing on all cylinders when the Racers face the Cardinals, who are ranked seventh nationally in passing offense. At the forefront of their offense is Jackson, whose 1387 passing yards this season have him ranked fourth in passing yards in the FBS. Jackson is also ranked second nationally in total offense and 12th in passing touchdowns.
But Jackson’s accolades are irrelevant to defensive lineman Kenney Wooten, whose relentless attack on the quarterback has him ranked atop the OVC in sacks with five on the year.
“Sacking Lamar Jackson, the Heisman Trophy winner, that’d be great,” Wooten said. “I plan on it too. I’m going to try to get there at least twice this week.”
For senior defensive back Zachary Wade, playing against an opponent as notable as Jackson will serve as added incentive for a 1-3 Racer team looking to bounce back.
“I can’t even sit here and lie to you, knowing that you’re playing the Heisman Trophy winner is definitely a little extra motivation,” Wade said. “Definitely allows you to lock in a little more and realize what you’re going against. At the same time, it’s an exciting opportunity and I wouldn’t want to have it any other way.”
For all the deficiencies with the offense, the defense has picked up the slack. Murray State’s defense has them ranked first in the OVC in sacks and interceptions.
The defense’s ability to make plays on the ball could be useful against Jackson, who has shown to be somewhat turnover prone in the past. Jackson has thrown three picks this year, two of which came in the Cardinals’ game against Kent State University last Saturday.
The Racers will be going into this game without the help of senior wide receiver Demetric Johnson. Murray State’s Athletic Department announced Monday that Johnson is no longer with the program, citing personal issues from Johnson. The wideout amassed 140 total yards and a touchdown in four games with the Racers this season.
Stewart said getting players like senior wide receiver Jordon Gandy involved in the offense will be a key emphasis in the game with Johnson’s absence.
“We’ve got to find ways to get [Gandy] the ball,” Stewart said. “People that we think can be explosive in space and can do some things, we’ve got to figure out ways to get them the ball.”
The game against the Cardinals will serve as more than just an in-state rivalry. Murray State and Louisville agreed to a contract last year which guaranteed the Racers $500,000 from the Cardinals for participating. Additionally, the contract ensures $600,000 to the Racers for a matchup in 2020.
ESPN’s Football Power Index gives the Cardinals a 99.4% chance to win Saturday’s matchup. Stewart said being the underdogs in the matchup makes it easy for his team to play freely.
“The one that always has the pressure on them in games like this is them,” Stewart said. “It doesn’t even matter if they win; if they don’t win by enough, then you start getting all of this chatter and all kinds of stuff. For us, what do we have to lose?”
The Racers will take on the Cardinals at 2:30 p.m. CT on Saturday, Sept. 30 at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium in Louisville, Kentucky. Fans can watch the game on Fox Sports South.