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Five Thoughts On The State Of The 2014 Louisville Football Team

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My take on the quarterback situation, the defense, and three players who need to step up immediately.

Andy Lyons

1. I still believe Reggie Bonnafon is the guy, but I also think we need to redefine what "the guy" means for this season.

Let me start off with this: I don't believe this is one of those situations where there's an obvious answer and everyone who disagrees with me is an idiot. You can make just as strong a case for Will Gardner as you can for Reggie Bonnafon right now, and if a fully healthy Gardner were named the starter on Friday night, it wouldn't be news that would cause me to throw my arms up and wonder what the hell this staff is doing.

I prefer Bonnafon at this point in the season because I believe both that he has a higher ceiling than Gardner's, and that his shortcomings are more easily correctable than Gardner's. Despite finding the endzone just twice last Saturday, Louisville actually moved the ball pretty effectively against Wake Forest for long stretches of play, they just had too many drives derailed by unforgivable penalties and turnovers. Even with those mistakes, if John Wallace doesn't misfire on two field goals and if the offense doesn't stall on just one or two of those drives, then U of L finishes with 33-40 points, and a lot of the panic that we've seen over the last few days doesn't exist.

Petrino said Monday the two fumbled exchanges were on Dominique Brown, but regardless of who was at fault, that's something the quarterback needs to work out with his ball carrier. Bonnafon also erred a handful of times on the read option, and as a result missed out on some potentially huge gains. And then there was also the missed touchdown pass to Eli Rogers, where Reggie could have either run for the endzone or simply made a better throw for the score. Still, the fact that these plays were there for the taking is encouraging. It means that if Bonnafon and the pieces around him can make the (relatively) simple adjustments necessary to properly execute Petrino's offense, the potential to put a big number on the scoreboard is there.

The other thing here is that we need to stop expecting "the guy" to be Teddy Bridgewater. I know heading into the season we all talked about how much we were going to miss Teddy and how unfair this was all going to be for his replacement, but it's easier to say those types of things than it is to sit through the games with appropriately adjusted expectations.

For the last three seasons we've been watching a guy who always seemed to make the right check, who got the ball to the right guy quickly and accurately, and who never seemed to make a bad turnover in a key situation. Humbling an overindulged child isn't achievable overnight, and when it comes to come quarterback play, I don't think there's a fan base in America that came into this season more spoiled than us. At this point, I don't think we have a guy who has shown that he has the potential to be the unquestioned starter heading into spring ball (still lots of positive buzz surrounding the name Tyler Ferguson), let alone Teddy Bridgewater. Our tempered expectations are still every bit as much of a work in progress as the Cardinal offense.

One final thought here: I am strongly opposed to the Bonnafon faction who support playing the freshman simply because it's "better for the future." This is not a throwaway season where you toss freshmen into the deep end just so that they'll know how to swim as sophomores and juniors. Louisville is 4-1, they have one of the best defenses in college football, they have a strong stable of running backs, they have one of the best wide receivers in the country coming back, and they have a second half schedule that gives them a chance to make a big-time national splash.

You play the quarterback who gives you the best chance to win right now. As it stands at this second, I believe that player is Reggie Bonnafon. If he goes out there on Friday and doesn't appear to have learned anything from the mistakes he made against Wake Forest, then I think that changes again. I know none of us wanted this to be a fluid situation this deep into the season, but what can you say? That's where we are.

2. The senior wide receivers need to step up.

Someone needs to call out this crew, so I'm going to make an attempt.

Eli Rogers, Michaelee Harris and Kai De La Cruz have to be better in all phases of the game. They have to cut out the drops, they have to cut out the penalties, they have to cut out the bad body language, and they have to be leaders with both their words and their actions.

Rogers is one of the most solid and reliable wide receivers to come through the program in recent memory, but he's had some very costly drops over the last three weeks, and too many times he's appeared visibly dismayed after being the target of a poorly thrown ball. I understand that you're not used to getting open and not receiving a ball that hits you in the chest, but showing up your young quarterback isn't helping anyone.

Harris had a key drop against Miami and again on Saturday against Wake Forest. He also made likely the biggest gaffe of the season when he bumped into James Quick on the muffed punt that led to Virginia's game-winning field goal. De La Cruz did something to draw the ire of Bobby Petrino, and did not play at all in the win over Florida International.

With DeVante Parker unavailable, these three veterans have combined for a grand total of two touchdowns in five games. They've struggled to get open down the field or produce any significant yards after catches, leaving defenses free to hone in on Quick, something Wake Forest did extremely well on Saturday.

The point of this isn't to shame this trio or make them feel bad, it's to say that now is the time that you have to step up. I get that there's a new coaching staff and a new quarterback and all of the other changes that come along with both of those things, but you have (at the very least) seven games left in your college careers. You've got seven games left to lead your team to a place where you have the chance to go out as champions, and to put yourselves in a position to play this game for money. If you don't make it happen now, then there are a handful of guys behind you who will jump at the opportunity to make their own impact on this team and their program.

3. The defense deserves every bit of the praise it has received.

Through five games, the Louisville defense ranks among the nation's best in just about every major statistical category ... just like we all predicted.

I think the defense is about as good as it looks to be on paper, which often times isn't the case in September. Lorenzo Mauldin is exactly who we though he was, Geord Holiman has become exactly who we thought he could be, no one wants to throw anywhere near Charles Gaines, Deiontrez Mount, James Sample, Keith Kelsey, Sheldon Rankins; the list of names who have played well enough to warrant their own thousand-word post could go on and on.

Having said all of this, I think it's also important to understand that the six offenses U of L will face in the second half of the season are probably all better than any of the six they will have faced in the first half. This defense can keep progressing, and there's still almost certainly going to be at least one or two situations in October or November where the offense needs to score 30-40 points for a Cardinal victory to occur.

Todd Grantham's guys have exceeded everyone's wildest expectations to this point, but this is certainly not the time for them to rest on their laurels. There is a gauntlet coming.

4. How many times can one team run the same play unsuccessfully before giving up?

We found that out on Saturday, when Wake Forest ran the shovel pass with zero success six times. The first five went for little or no gain, but it took a Sheldon Rankins interception on the sixth attempt for the Demon Deacons to finally give up on the play for good.

Credit the defense again for always being ready and in the right place, but man, I guess you also have to credit Wake Forest for either their stubbornness, their generosity or both.

That's not really a thought on the state of Louisville football, but I was so blown away by it that I had to mention it somewhere.

5. Three claps for Brandon Radcliff on seizing his moment.

Everyone who has ever played sports at a competitive level has been told during training to be ready to make the most of their opportunity when it comes, because they might not get more than one shot.

Brandon Radcliff has shown flashes of brilliance during the spring and blowout games against overmatched opponents, but he's still been little more than an afterthought since arriving at Louisville. That was expected to continue this season with Dominique Brown returning for his senior season, Michael Dyer looking like his old self during the spring, and true freshman L.J. Scott beginning the season at No. 2 on the depth chart. Instead of pouting, Radcliff continued to wait for his opportunity and made the most of it when it came on Saturday. He revived a lifeless Louisville offense and finished the afternoon with a team-high 129 yards rushing and two touchdowns on just 17 carries.

Radcliff has always been one of the (pound-for-pound) strongest guys on the U of L roster, but on Saturday he showcased a level of speed that the Cardinal backfield has been in desperate need of so far this season. Cashing in on that big chance guaranteed that he's about to get plenty more. Kudos to him for maintaining that level of persistence, patience and focus.