Many fans have spent this season hoping and waiting for the offensive explosion that the rehiring of Bobby Petrino seemingly promised. But is that expectation fair? First year coaches come into their situations with many uphill battles. They are taking over a team full of guys that they didn't recruit. The system and philosophy changes can be very hard for players to pick up. Even the change in gameday routines can be hard for coaches to implement. The expectations of fans in the first year for a coach should always be tempered but I decided to take a look at some numbers from the first years for Charlie Strong, Steve Kragthorpe, and 2014 version Bobby Petrino. I compared their first year with the year before they came on in their area of expertise. The thought process was pretty simple. I figure that the coach should have an easier time improving the area that they know best. It's a pretty informal look to see if the offensive struggles we've seen this year are normal for Louisville football.
Steve Kragthorpe took over in 2007 after what is considered one of the best seasons in the history of the program. 2006 was a season where the offense was absolutely electric. Led by Brian Brohm, Harry Douglas, Kolby Smith, and Mario Urrutia the offense had a great ability to create big plays because of their offensive balance. Even with the loss of Michael Bush in the opener, the team was able to an average of 5.0 yards per carry and 185.3 yards a game. The running backs didn't have a ton of big play runs that year but they were consistent. That consistency allowed the play action passing to be deadly that year. I think we all remember seeing the majority of big plays in the passing game that year. Most of those plays came off of play action. That explosive offense averaged 37.8 points per game.
In 2007 Steve Kragthorpe took over an offense loaded with the likes of Eric Wood, Breno Giacomini, Harry Douglas, Brian Brohm, Mario Urrutia, and Gary Barnidge. The final record doesn't show it at all but the offense actually improved a little bit statistically in Kragthorpe's first year. It was a fairly marginal improvement, but improvement nonetheless. Brohm threw for nearly 1,000 more yards with one more game played that year and Harry Douglas had fairly similar numbers from the previous year. The running game was much less productive with an average of 4.2 yards per carry and 146.1 yards per game. After scoring 35 rushing touchdowns the previous year the running backs were only able to total 22 trips to paydirt on the ground. The passing attack put up much better numbers from a yards standpoint, but weren't nearly as explosive with the average yard per catch taking a 2 yard dip. The offense was much more vanilla but it produced a similar point total at 35.2 points per game.
A coach probably couldn't ask to walk into a better situation and Kragthorpe took pretty good advantage of what he was given. The offense improved in some areas and regressed in others. However, looking at the offense as a whole the total yardage numbers improved by 13 yards per game. Where they regressed is how many yards they averaged per play going from 7.1 to 6.4 yards per snap. After taking over for a very productive offense Kragthorpe had a fairly similar level of production with his first year offense.
Charlie Strong was regarded as an outstanding defensive coordinator when he was brought in to replace Kragthorpe. He took over a defense that gave up an average of 26.2 points per game. The defense in 2009 had a really hard time stopping the run, giving up 23 touchdowns and 4.3 yards per carry. With such a dearth of team speed it was very surprising to see that the defense only allowed 12.7 yards per catch. Big plays weren't a major issue for the team but they did allow a completion percentage of 64.6 to opposing quarterbacks. The defense had two players that would go on to play in the NFL but only one that was a starter at the time. Even with a high number of seniors the defense couldn't do much to stop anyone.
The 2010 defense had their work cut out for them but they did post a substantial improvement in Strong's first year. Strong was somehow able to take a group of guys that mostly didn't play the year before and hold teams to an average of 311.7 yards per game which was a solid improvement from the 371.1 from the year before. The defense allowed 7 less touchdowns and cut the opponent's completion percentage to 54.8. Guys like Hakeem Smith, Rodney Gnat, and Daniel Brown came out of nowhere to post big seasons after doing pretty much nothing at all the year before. Strong had a different situation than the other recent coaches as he was taking over for a failed coach. He couldn't really do much worse. But the ability to get the most out of the talent he had was impressive. The defense finished the year giving up 19.4 points per game.
Strong's situation was so different than what we've seen here in recent years. He absolutely had to improve things to win games. The team was bad at just about everything and whatever product we saw as fans would be accepted as long as the win total improved. He got a free pass for his first year and won fans over by going to a bowl game in his first year as a head coach. He also did things off the field that intrigued fans. Flipping BJ Butler from Georgia was something that Steve Kragthorpe could never do. Getting a four-star kid like Michaelee Harris out of Miami was something that fans saw as sign of the future to come. All of those things raised the expectations of fans. It was what the older fans saw John L. Smith do and it's what the younger crowd saw as the norm after the seeing such a bad product under Kragthorpe.
The 2013 Louisville offense featured the best quarterback in the history of the program. Theodore Bridgewater finished the year with a 70% completion percentage and 31 touchdown passes. He consistently made defenses look silly with his escapeablity as well as his knack for threading the needle on third downs. The offense as a whole averaged a solid 460.8 yards per game and 35.2 points. The running game left a lot to be desired with 4.2 yards per carry and 146.8 yards per game. The team's 18 rushing touchdowns don't sound like a bad number, but with such a discrepancy between passing touchdowns and rushing touchdowns it's a sign that the offense was unbalanced. DeVante Parker was one of the few consistent big play threats and he was utilized well. Outside of him there weren't a ton of big plays for the offense. The three biggest run plays were either in garbage time or against the worst team on the schedule. The passing game had a fairly large amount of chunk plays but not a lot of explosive plays.
The 2014 season was billed as the return of the explosive Petrino offense that we all saw in 2006. He would have to work his magic without a proven quarterback, but he returned four offensive linemen with starting experience, a solid stable of running backs, and a plethora of experienced wide receivers. Things changed before the season even started when Parker broke his foot in practice. Without the best player on offense the numbers haven't looked at all like the consistent big play offense that fans saw in Petrino's last stint. The offense is averaging 370.4 yards per game and 5.0 yards per play. The running game has been extremely inconsistent but has already put up 15 touchdowns on the year. But, they only average 3.6 yards per carry and 144.6 yards per game. With three different running backs running for 100 yards this year, it is obvious that the ability and talent are there but something is still missing somehow. The passing game has had trouble with two quarterbacks that haven't seemed to totally grasp the offense as a whole. They are completing 56% of their passes with a lot of missed opportunities to open receivers. However, that veteran group of receivers hasn't done them many favors. Sure-handed guys like Eli Rogers and Michaelee Harris have dropped passes they would've hauled in for easy first downs last year.
The major issue that the offense has seen is the regression from an offensive line that was already just "ok" to begin with. Tobijah Hugley was moved in to the lineup to start at Center which put Chris Acosta on the bench. The other four linemen were regular starters last year. They were by no stretch a great line, but they didn't have nearly as many issues in 2013. Guys like Eric Wood, Danny Barlowe, and Mario Benavides have been very vocal about what they think the problems are with Wood and Barlowe pointing to Petrino's complex offense. The line is the most important part of an offense and the lack of solid offensive line play has led to a major lack of offensive production. The offense is averaging 90 less yards per game and the passing game is only getting 12.1 yards per completion. The most explosive offensive play of the year was a 73 yard catch and run by James Quick that ended with him getting run down by a safety. But the point totals haven't been bad at all with an average of 30.9 points per game.
I wrote this with a different process than normal. I didn't look at any stats before I started writing. Each paragraph was researched as I wrote. It's easy to be biases as we are going through a season right now that has had a lot of frustrating moments. I wanted to try to avoid that as much as possible (It's not totally possible). I would have never guessed that the 2007 offense put up such impressive numbers based on the final record. The talent on that team was insane but the team couldn't get past a .500 record. Strong somehow got to a bowl game with a defense that lost 7 starters from a bad defense. He got 88 tackles out of 175 pound Hakeem Smith and 17 passes defensed from Johnny Patrick.
With all of this being said, it would make sense that Louisville fans would expect Petrino to come in and at the very least keep the offense at the same level it was before he arrived. It's what we have seen in the past. The educated fans will see and acknowledge all of the obvious factors that need to be added to the argument. Strength of schedule, injuries, attrition, conference affiliation, timing, and god knows how many other factors. They mean more than they are given credit for. I don't think it helps that the program brought back every possible player they could to tell us just how explosive this offense would be. The fans have been sold since the day Petrino's rehire was announced. "Bobby Ball" was back and so was his ability to turn two-stars into NFL players. That narrative that was pushed onto the fans hasn't come to fruition and a large number of fans have let their frustrations be known. With the history of recent coaches in their first year it's understandable that fans have been pretty antsy.