But Winston has never faced a pass defense like Louisville’s. Every opponent he faced last season finished the season outside the top 25 in defensive efficiency on passing plays and this season every opponent he has faced is currently ranked outside the top 40.
Louisville, on the other hand, leads the nation in that stat, adding about 13 points per game to its net scoring margin as a result of its defense on passing plays. The Cardinals have allowed the lowest Total QBR in the nation and only NC State’s Jacoby Brissett has posted a raw QBR above 25 against them (0-100 scale, 50 is average).
When Winston matches up with Louisville’s defense Thursday night on ESPN, it will be strength versus strength, and one of the two will have to give. Will it be the reigning Heisman winner or the nation’s best defense in terms of Total QBR?
To help answer that question, we break down the areas in which Winston excels and how Louisville’s defense matches up.
Winston has converted a first down on 53 percent of his third-down passing plays in his career, on pace to be the best for any FBS quarterback in the last 10 seasons (min. 10 games started). His career third-down Total QBR (96) is the highest for any active player and second to only Johnny Manziel’s.
Louisville is allowing the second-lowest third-down conversion percentage in the FBS at 24 percent. The Cardinals have an FBS-high seven interceptions on third down, which is more than 57 FBS teams have on all downs combined.
One player Winston might want to stay away from is Louisville safety Gerod Holliman, who has four interceptions and one forced fumble on third down. Holliman and Ole Miss’Senquez Golson lead the FBS in third-down interceptions.
Winston can make all the throws. He has completed 51 percent of his passes thrown 15 yards or more downfield during his career, best for an ACC quarterback with at least 50 attempts since the start of the 2012 season (first year we have air yard data). Winston has the most touchdowns (22) and completions (86) for any player in the ACC since the start of last season on such throws.
One problem is that Winston has a history of turning the ball over when passing downfield. Since the start of last season, the only Power 5 player with more interceptions on passes thrown 15 yards or longer than Winston is Washington State’s Connor Halliday.
That could be bad news against a Louisville defense that is tied with Ole Miss for the most interceptions among Power 5 schools on passes thrown 15 yards or more from the line of scrimmage with 10.
Since the start of the 2013 season, Winston has thrown a Power 5-high 26 touchdowns against five or more pass rushers. Winston has been even better against the blitz in his last two games, completing 19-of-22 passes with five touchdowns and no interceptions.
Louisville has not blitzed often under first-year defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. They have sent five or more pass rushers on 21 percent of opponent dropbacks, six percentage points lower than the average for a Power 5 defense.
When they do blitz, the Cardinals have been successful, allowing 3.4 yards per dropback, seventh-best among Power 5 schools and two yards better than the Power 5 average.
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