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CardinalStrong: 2016 Season Recap

NCAA Football: Citrus Bowl-Louisiana State vs Louisville Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

“What in the HELL, was that all about”

I’m not really sure where to start, and since we’re all friends here, I have no clue where to end either…or what in the heck to throw in the middle. In fact, along with many other Cards fans, I have no idea how I’m supposed to feel right now. The first four weeks of this season were four of the best consecutive weeks as a UofL football fan in quite some time. The hype train wasn’t just rolling, it was full speed ahead en route to Clemson, South Carolina to battle a Top 5 team, and the boys had an opportunity to leave that game as a legitimate contender for the National Championship with a strong Heisman favorite at QB. Yeah, those were some good times. Then everything seemed to change. They won some more games, but you could tell those last 3 yards at Clemson may have been the beginning of the end. So what in the hell happened..?

Sure, Louisville was technically still in the playoff hunt ten weeks into the year, but as we know now, even if they ran the table after Week 5 there was no way they were crashing the party this year with how everything else played out. That I can swallow. It was the effort, attitude, play calling, and overall lack of confidence in the final three games that makes me want to scream like my infant son (or worse yet, my 4 year old daughter). We all know the pain of consecutive losses and while many have blocked the memory or long since forgotten the disappointment of the 0-3 start last year the irony behind the “3 straight losses” bookending the last two years is not lost on me. I thought that was bad. This is worse. This time last year I felt good. The three early losses had been put in the back of my mind and written off as inexperience and the level of competition. We had a rising star in Jackson, the offense was clicking, and we had A LOT of talent returning for 2016. I have no excuse this year, and the fact that I have to sit here typing this having only seen what I consider one very good quarter of football from this team since November 5th, it doesn’t make me happy. At all. I’m struggling folks. Let’s break some things down…

This year during the countdown I pointed out just how bad the offense, and the line in particular, had been at protecting the quarterback. I highlighted the negatives but boldly predicted at least a “40 spot increase” in the national rankings for some of the more substantial categories we use to judge their blocking/protection efficiency. To be honest, I felt pretty good about that prediction five weeks in. They were sitting middle of the pack in most areas and the line seemed to really take a step forward. I liked what I was seeing from Christian, McNeil, and even Mahoni at times. They were growing up before our eyes. Then, almost unexplainably, it seemed like the wheels fell off and the unit could just never recover. Every week we were waiting to see what opposing defensive player we could turn into an all-conference selection by the end of the game. It appeared they had not only peaked early in the season, but actually started to regress. But maybe, just maybe, they weren’t as bad as we think? Was it all blown slightly out of proportion?

Nope. They stunk. The sack statistic is nauseating, and even though we improved statistically in the TFL category we were still sitting at 94th (Ninety-freaking-fourth) allowing opponents to get in our backfield 83 times. (Nice work on 4th down though, fellas) I know this isn’t a groundbreaking take saying “we need improvement along the line”. I’ve heard it, you’ve heard it, and Petrino has heard it for over 3 years now, and with the exception of the first month of 2016 and few random games here and there, we honestly haven’t seen any improvement. It’s not frustrating, it’s not demoralizing, it’s simply unacceptable, and something needs to be done. Why didn’t things improve or at least stay the same as the season went on? Why didn’t we do something different when things started to break down? Well, they tried. Let me address some of the more popular “solutions” from the armchair quarterbacks I saw during the course of the year…

“They’re getting pressure every play, run a damn screen or something”

Sounds great in theory. I mean every casual observer of the game or Madden player from way back knows when a defense is being aggressive you punch them in the mouth with a running back screen, a bubble screen on the outside, heck, even a jetsweep or two may help limit their attack. The problem is that Houston, LSU, UK, Duke, and many others were getting pressure with 3 or 4 down lineman. It wasn’t a “havoc” blitz package or sophisticated stunting up front. It was simply “my man can beat your man every play, and there is nothing you can do about it”. Running any form of screen mentioned above still leaves you with one or two linebackers, or a nickel corner, in very good position to make the play. Even if you got a completion out of it the man would have nowhere to go. It just wasn’t gonna work.

“Roll Lamar out of the pocket. Give him some space to work”

Once again, it sounds like a decent plan, but if you watched the bowl game and the Houston game in particular, Bobby tried that many times. Ed Oliver ate all night long getting pressure from the outside edge, and when he didn’t penetrate the pocket he had more batted balls than Anas in the post on routes in the flat or shallow routes across the middle. If you get Lamar outside the hash marks on a designed play, and he just so happens to not be pressured, you have now effectively cut the field in half and you still have those one or two extra defenders I mentioned above that you have to account for as well. It can work, but it’s not as simple as it sounds. If the defense only brings 4 you are looking at the potential situation of having at most 4 or 5 available “receivers” working half of the field trying to get open against 7 defenders. That’s not a good offensive scheme, and one that will rarely produce positive results.

On the other hand, If Lamar happens to get outside the hash on a non-designed rollout this is where his ability to run actually becomes an obstacle for the passing game. Let me explain. I’ve praised our wideouts many times over for their downfield blocking. Those extra blocks probably accounted for nearly 45-50% of Lamar’s total yardage in the secondary this season and last. They created lanes or at a minimum created an obstacle the defense was forced to avoid. The issue is, once Lamar gets free the wideouts react just like we as fans do. Here we go!! They immediately go into block mode and turn their back on Lamar. Go back and watch. It happens all the time. I don’t blame them, that’s what they’ve been conditioned to do, and like I said before, they have made some excellent plays doing just that, but watch any other team with a mobile QB and see how their wideouts react slightly different. Last week when Watson or Mayfield got loose the wideouts would break the route, find space in the coverage or take off downfield. I lost count to how many times Baker or Deshaun hit an open man after a scramble. They fought to get open, and rewarded the QB with a deep pass or a completion for evading the pressure. You don’t see the 50 or 60 yard runs from them like you do Jackson, but you do see a lot more 15 yard completions when a wideout sits down in the zone vs. a sack or throw away. The Louisville wideouts need to work on doing the same going forward.

“Keep an extra man in the backfield to block. Give Lamar some more time”

While it will most likely give Lamar an extra second or two (depending upon who they have in there blocking), the end result would likely be the same as one more man blocking equals one less potential target, thus one less player the defense has to worry about. So in the scenario I mentioned above where we had 4 (receivers) vs. 7 (defenders)…now we only have 3 vs. 7. That extra two seconds probably isn’t helping that much with the new even more unfavorable odds. Oh, and as I alluded to above…that extra blocker has to actually, you know…block

“So what’s the solution smartass.”

Wow. Not so aggressive Mr./Mrs. hypothetical fan. The honest answer is there is no quick fix or else Petrino and Company would have done it. This may be shocking to some but Petrino just may have a slightly better offensive mind than I do (I know, deep breaths). BUT, I do have some thoughts. Petrino said over and over that we had to work on establishing the run this year to help Lamar but honestly we just never did it consistently. Because it’s a recent memory, we can all recall the nice run from Radcliff to start the bowl game. No gimmicks, no tricks, just 12 yards running it straight down their throat. And then nothing. Louisville finished the game with 9 rushing attempts from players not named Lamar Jackson. Nine. That means after that first play we ran the ball 8 more times with one of our backs the remaining 3 and a half quarters. I know we were trailing most of that game but obviously the 3 step drop/shotgun approach wasn’t working. Same scenario with Houston where our backs only had 15 rushing attempts, and Virginia (15), and Duke (11) and so on and so on. They tried to slice everyone up quickly with the passing attack, proving Lamar could throw the ball, and if they did, they killed them (Charlotte/Cuse/FSU/NC State…). But when they didn’t, they kept going back to the same well looking for water that just wasn’t there. Moving forward, to be a successfully balanced team we have to develop a rushing game from the backs. Lamar is special, but as teams focus on him more and more (second half of the season, next season will be worse) new weapons must emerge. When we can threaten your second level with Jeremy Smith, Malik Williams, Dae Williams, etc Lamar may not have more time but he suddenly has more space. Half the battle.


As we know, the line wasn’t our only problem this year. If those blocking/protection stats above weren’t enough alone to leave you with a permanent scar from scratching your head so much, how about we dive into the “discipline/focus” this year? Surely we’ve learned to limit the boneheads mistakes as time has passed, right?…right?


Not only did we put ourselves in a deeper hole with penalties this year, we also fumbled it more often, lost those fumbles significantly more often, and increased the turnover margin in the opponents favor by 6 over the 2015 season. You want to hit me with the “yeah, but in spite of all that they were still a Top 6 scoring offense”. Sounds great, but in those three uninspired losses the Cards averaged 364 yds/game, a full 168 yards less than their season average and only 19 pts/game, almost 24 points below their 42.5pts/game average. Why? It may have something to do with the 27 penalties and 8 turnovers…but that’s just a guess. Someone is to blame for the derailment. Who?

Leaving the amateur athletes out of this discussion, there are grown ass men getting paid millions of dollars (cumulatively) to do nothing more than teach these players how to play the game of football, and if you find that the players can’t physically do what you ask, the other part of your job description is to go find players who can. Strike out on job description #1, you better be pretty damn good at job description #2, or else your job should become vacant. Period.

If I’m being honest, this is all very uncomfortable for me. For those of you who have read the last five years of me counting down the football season (you’re all saints) you could probably count on one hand the number of times I’m made an openly negative comment concerning an existing player or member of the staff. I get zero enjoyment trashing 18-22 year olds, and I certainly don’t enjoy calling for peoples jobs, but I guess this is my breaking point. What we are doing now is not working. If you want to make the argument that the players are talented enough to compete, and the coaches are good enough to make them better, then someone better answer as to why that hasn’t happened. Not once, not twice, not even three times, but consistently over the last three years. The Louisville Cardinals fielded a legitimate Top 5 team early this year when everyone was on the same page, but arguably may not have been a Top 25 team as they left the field in Orlando, and that shouldn’t be acceptable.

The fact that I have to type a post that is this ripe with negative undertones less than a month removed from a Louisville Cardinal football player winning the damn Heisman trophy really pisses me off. Don’t get me wrong, I celebrated just as much as everyone, but I’ve got a disgusting taste in my mouth that I know will still linger months from now. I hate it. Louisville has enough returning talent on both sides of the ball, a forgiving schedule, and some tough lessons learned to really make some noise in 2017. Part of playing with the big boys and ultimately reaching the goal of a National Championship is managing the lofty expectations and handling the pressure of the situation each and every week. Maybe we see some new players emerge, maybe we see some new coaches on the staff, but let’s hope both groups have that same nasty taste in their mouth this entire offseason and put together something special next year.

238 Days Until Kickoff.

Go Cards.