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Louisville Football: Thoughts at the 1⁄2 Pole

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The second segment of the Cards race towards a championship

143rd Kentucky Derby Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Three weeks ago I gave you the first leg of the season long race for this Cardinals football team. If you missed it, go back and check it out. When we last left the Cards they were sitting a couple lengths behind front runner Clemson, looking to keep pace until they hit the ½ pole…

After challenging Clemson early and coming up short the Cardinals planned to simply maintain the proper pace over the next quarter mile, not slipping behind any unworthy adversaries and positioning themselves to make a late push. Dropping back into the large group behind Clemson the Cardinals felt the Golden Flash trying to make a move on the outside as they came out of the turn but Lamar held the Cards steady and eventually the Golden Flashes just didn’t have the legs to compete, fading as they entered the backstretch.

Similar to the Golden Flashes the Racers knew they wouldn’t have the horse to win the whole thing but looked to force the Cards into a poor position at they hit the straightaway, trying to push them into the slot 4 or 5 wide off the rail. The Cards knew losing their position, especially to a horse like Murray State, would almost be impossible to recover from moving forward. Lamar once again remained poised, didn’t allow the Cards to be pushed outside, and was able to settle in for a relaxed ride over the next furlong.

In what seemed like the 47th race in a row, a lot of handicappers pegged the Wolfpack as a darkhorse candidate to win the race outright this year. Through the first 3 ½ furlongs those prognosticators had already experienced the roller coaster ride that is being a Wolfpack fan. Stumbling out of the gate early many had already wrote off their chances of competing with the big boys, but overtaking the injured Seminoles in the first segment allowed them to slide to the rail and slowly work themselves back into the second group. The Cards knew what to expect from the Wolfpack, dispatching them in the last three contests, but the lights were brighter and the race was much bigger this year. The Cards felt the Wolfpack moving closer, coming up on the rail as they continued down the backstretch. Lamar tried to move inside but numerous failed defensive attempts allowed the Wolfapck to pull even. They battled neck and neck for what seemed like a furlong or so until the Cards watched them pulled ahead. Lamar asked for more and got a nice kick for a few strides, but it became evident that Finley had more horse and the Wolfpack separated from the group, pushing towards Clemson as the approach the final turn...

Concerns from the second ¼ mile:

Coaching- If Louisville laid an egg here or there against solid competition I would be frustrated but I could likely overlook it, chalk it up to “everyone does it” and quickly move on to the next opponent. Unfortunately that is simply not the case anymore for Louisville football. You’ve all seen the stat, you’ve all heard the complaints, and this is me officially piling on. Bobby Petrino, coaching a perennial Top 25 team, cannot go 1-9 in his last ten attempts to beat other Top 25 opponents. It just can’t happen. Not when you have the talent to compete, not when you have arguably the best player in college football the last two seasons, and especially not when you’re paying him $4.25m (w/ APR bonus), positioning him as one of the Top 10 coaches in the country in terms of base pay. Does it all fall on his shoulders? Of course it doesn’t, but the other members of the staff are an extension of him, and he has had the power to make the call about each and every one of those hires, including the defensive coordinator who appears to be in over his head in season one. The “fire Bobby” crowd may be going slightly overboard (what other coach, better than him, is walking into this athletic department mess right now?) but the “Bobby has lost his fastball” regime may be more on target. Not sure how else you explain the complete avoidance of any running threat from our backs and the steadfast denial of allowing Lamar to go to work and use his most dangerous weapon with hardly any RPO (run pass option) or inverted veer play calls. It made zero sense last season, and continues to make zero sense six games into 2017. As I said after the game Thursday the “offensive genius” narrative from the commentators each game is wearing thin on me until he proves he can beat a solid defense, while just so happening to wield the best player in college football as his quarterback.

Defense- I hate to rehash old topics from the first post of this series, but the Cardinal’s defense deserves every criticism coming its way right now. If Sirmon is drowning right now because he took a position that is above his pay grade at this stage in his career, fine, we made a bad hire and we need to move on. If that’s not the case and if you truly believe he has the talent and knowledge to lead this defense to producing a better on field result, then the questions should be raised each and every week as to why that isn’t happening. Six games in I still don’t understand our defensive philosophy. I can’t seem to locate “apply no pressure…sit back in coverage…pray for no double moves” in the Buddy Ryan book on defense. I specifically held off on posting this until after the college football weekend so the stats wouldn’t be skewed and most teams would have played all six games as well, I thought it would only be fair. After back to back cupcakes in this segment, where the defense should have dominated the stat line, the unit still sits at 88th in the country in passing defense (238.7yds/g) and only decreased their rushing yards per game by nine (112.67yd/g) the last three weeks. So, with two gimme games under their belt, a win over a UNC team that only has one victory, and a Purdue team in Week one under a new coaching staff, the defense currently sits at 44th in the country (351.3 yds/g) in total yardage allowed. In my eyes, that’s a respectable season for a new coach in a new scheme, but unfortunately the year is only half way over and the “easy” part is in the rear view mirror. If things were encouraging or showing signs of improvement I would break out my Bob Ross brush set and paint you all the happiest damn picture you’ve ever seen about this unit moving forward, but that is simply not the case, and they continue to show no signs of life when the lights have been the brightest. If the Cards finish the season in the Top 50 in terms of defensive yardage per game I’ll be shocked, and that should be unacceptable.

Penalties/Turnovers- Are you starting to pick up on a trend? The same issue that ate at the fanbase at the end of 2016 spilled into the first segment of 2017, and now once again rears its ugly head in the second segment as well. For those who need a quick refresher, after 3 games this year Louisville sat at 111th in the country with 26 penalties, an embarrassing stat to say the least for a team pegged as undisciplined all last year. So, after two games against far inferior opponents and a road test at NC State the Cards proved that no task is too simple and somehow managed to slide down even further to 120th in the country, now having racked up 47 penalties through six games. I have no words. Looking toward turnovers to try and boost my spirit I quickly remembered that the ball security issue had once again come to light as well and we moved from sitting at zero in the turnover margin category to -2, moving them down to 86th in the nation. Eighty Sixth. The team who took hit after hit all offseason for not holding onto the ball and committing far too many penalties has somehow managed to improve in neither category half way through the year. I just don’t get it.

Why all hope is not lost:

Lamar-It pains me to do this, as anyone who reads my countdown over the summer knows, I’m a big “no one player can do this alone” guy, understanding that each cog in the wheel has to do his part in order for the thing to spin efficiently, but I think we’re at this point in the process. Lamar Jackson is once again one of the most exciting players in college football and he happens to be wearing the jersey of the team you cheer for. There is a 0.0% they give him another Heisman but he continues to put up ridiculous stats every single week. Through week six Lamar sits at #2 in the country in Yards per game (416.7)....and that even takes into account Petrino more or less completely taking away his legs in a couple of those competitions. For reference, through six games last year Lamar had 113 rushing attempts for 832 yards but in that same stretch this year Lamar has only 91 attempts for 510 yards….and he’s still #2 in the country in offensive yardage (For those curious, he’s only 180yds ahead of his passing total at this point from last season). Soak it all up, folks. For what it’s worth I think Puma will be a great quarterback at Louisville, but having a player who should be in the running for back to back Heisman trophies is going to be tough to compete with for decades to come.

Youngbloods- As frustrating as things may be at times, I do have to remind myself on occasion that a significant amount of young players are getting clock on both sides of the ball, albeit due to injuries or depth issues, they’re still out there getting reps. While aspirations of a National Championship or Conference Championship have all but evaporated we’ll likely get an opportunity to see some underclassmen get significant time moving forward, gaining a lot of experience moving into the next couple seasons. From a 30,000 foot view one could say that underclassmen represent a decent piece of the current offensive line, wide receiving core, and the Cardinals secondary. Watching these young players take their lumps can be frustrating but let’s hope those false starts, dropped balls, fumbles, and blown coverage’s translate to learned behavior in 2018 and beyond.

***

Let’s be honest, it’s been tough being a Louisville fan the last few weeks for a lot of things going on OFF the field and court, so getting a morale boost from the football team last Thursday would have been a big help. Instead we sat down for four hours and got more of the same nonsense that left us feeling underwhelmed with the Card’s performance against a tough opponent once again. The next “1/4 mile” contains contests against Boston College, Florida State, and Wake Forest. If we finished that stretch 3-0 I would not be stunned as I believe they have the talent to compete with all three of those teams. The unfortunate counterpoint to that of course is leaving that same stretch sitting at 0-3 is also not out of the question. Let’s hope the staff and team utilize these extra couple of days to try and hit the reset button at the halfway point and turn this season into one they can be proud of when they cross the finish line.

See you all back here at the ¼ pole.

Go Cards.