Another quarter mile is in the books. If you missed Parts 1 and 2 of this series go back and check them out, I think they’re worth your time, especially if you feel like recapping 6 of the most dumbfounding and absolutely frustrating games Louisville has played in quite some time (I’m really selling it, ain’t I?).
It doesn’t take a master handicapper to observe that things aren’t quite going as planned heading into this third leg of the race. Most of the lofty goals the Cards set in the offseason have long since been gone and the individual goal of seeing Lamar repeat as a Heisman winner is nearly off the table. Losing out to NC State in a somewhat unenthusiastic fashion at the ½ mile pole left fans frustrated to say the least, let’s see how the next segment unfolds….
After just getting passed by the Wolfpack the Cardinals appear somewhat demoralized, although still in the mix with the second group of horses it appears they realize the Wolfpack and Clemson may now be unreachable. The Golden Eagles, who have offered little challenge to the Cardinals in races prior are now in the same group and looking to take advantage of a horse that just hasn’t shown the kick many expected to see in the weeks leading up to the race. While Anthony Brown had been labeled as the jockey at the post draw a late scratch put newcomer AJ Dillon in the saddle and he has been grinding from the back of the pack the whole race. Still appearing somewhat stunned from being overpowered by the Wolfpack the Cards have not taken the opportunity to slide onto the rail and for some unfathomable reason seem content staying 6 wide heading into the turn, almost as if they have no interest in playing defense and want to make things harder than it should be. The Golden Eagles are uncharacteristically showing more fight than the Cards and it appears they are actually going to pass them on the inside. Yes, the Golden Eagles have now passed the Cardinals mid way through the turn. I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t witnessed it with my own two eyes.
The Cardinals now find themselves in the back of the pack with what appears to be an injured Seminole horse, a pre-race favorite that stumbled coming out of the gate. Lamar is asking for some kick but just hasn’t gotten the response from the thoroughbred he expected to see. Jockey James Blackman is looking to slide past the Cardinals on the inside, even with his injured horse, which may seem unprecedented but with the Cards showing thus far I would not be shocked to see them fall behind the Seminoles either. Lamar is looking to finally guide his horse to the rail and with much less traffic in the back of the pack he found an opening and slid in front of the Seminoles going on the defensive for what seems like the first time since early in the race. Mid way through the turn Blackmon has fumbled away his opportunity to gain position and has now pulled up on the reins, likely looking to just trot to the finish.
Getting a boost from holding off the Seminoles the Cards now look to make a push at the Demon Deacons directly in front of them, who are lagging slightly behind the second group. Never imaging themselves to be in this position Lamar is hoping to remain on the rail and make up some ground quickly before reaching the quarter pole. Deacon jockey John Wolford just peeked back at the Cardinals and is having nothing to do with allowing them space to operate. He is starting to show his horse the whip coming out of the turn and in what should no longer be considered a surprise the Cardinals simply do not have the horse to keep up with the group. The Demon Deacons and the rest of the second group are now actually pulling away from the Cardinals as they come out of the final turn. In what seemed to be a promising race for the Cardinals, they now have no chance of finishing in the money and the last quarter mile appears to be for optics alone.
Concerns from the third ¼ mile:
I understand that in situations like these hyperbole and drastic overstatements become commonplace, but I’m quite literally running out of words to say that haven’t already been said. Instead of flooding your brain with text I’ll simply utter three very simple and very straightforward words to sum up my thoughts thus far.
I was on the train. I was buying into the “we got a real shot this year” hype heading into the season. Sure, we had plenty of questions, but I thought ‘Lamar’ would be a reasonable answer to the majority of them. After all, how could you possibly field the most electric player in college football, with plenty of talent surrounding him, and NOT finish with at least ten wins? It just didn’t make sense.
For those who may consider themselves visually learners (myself included) lets open the very scary book of ‘stats’ to help piece together just what has happened to the Cardinal football this season and how things have trended since Bobby 2.0 began...
The 2014 team started strong and finished strong in this category, only allowing a tick over three touchdowns per game on average (good enough for 24th in the country). Even though they lost some folks the year prior some of Strong’s holdovers continued to dominate upfront in 2014 and beyond. As those players have slowly left the program via graduation or transfer, the scoring defense has jumped almost a full ten points in four seasons currently sitting at 30.8pts/g (92nd in the country).
So now we know teams are scoring, but maybe its long plays, gadget plays, ‘trickeration’ if you will that is hurting the Cards? Nope. Just like the scoring defense the opponent’s Red zone Conversion percent is going up and has reached a ten year plus high at 88.89%. If you want to round up to 90% for simplicity even my dumb brain can figure out that 9 times out of every ten a team is putting points on the board once they cross the 20 (Cards sit at 103rd in the country). Craziness.
Similar to the scoring defense the overall defense statistics in terms of yards/game has never been as good as that first season (2014) and has skyrocketed this year to an astronomical number at 410.1yd/g (85th in the country). Unacceptable on any level, but even more so considering you have numerous upperclassmen playing large defensive roles. In fact, against Wake 13 of the 22 players on the two deep depth chart were Juniors or Seniors. ‘We’re young’ doesn’t play well with me, especially nine games into the season.
Yeah, that whole ‘3rd and Grantham’ thing may have been a nice hashtag or a very simply excuse to blurt out when complaining to your friends about the defense, but on average the last three years (2014-2016) the Cards sat at 18th in the country in stopping opponents on 3rd down. This year, the Cards are almost a full 10 percentage points higher than last season and are dangerously close to clipping the 45% mark on the season. In laymen’s terms, damn near half the time opponents snap the ball on 3rd down, they are converting. Inexcusable. Cards sit at 92nd in the country as of today, with only 15 Power 5 teams performing at a worse clip. Who would thought we’d be begging for ‘3rd and Grantham’ in 2017?
So why are all those numbers so high? Is it just lack of talent, drive, playcalling, etc? One big reason is that the Cards defense is not getting pressure or turning the ball over as often as they used too, which often results in a shorter field and easier points for the offense. (Buckle up because we are quite literally about to go down a slippery slope)
Pressuring the quarterback and getting sacks can almost single handedly kill drives. On the other hand, when you don’t do that, drives are sustained and usually result in more yardage and more points being scored (see charts above). The Cards have gotten worse each of the last four seasons in getting to the QB and if they keep pace the projected 2017 number will be the lowest sack total since 2008 (currently sitting at 58th in the country).
Just as sacks ‘likely’ kill drives, interceptions will undoubtedly kill them, putting the ball back in the hands of the offense. Following a disturbing trend, once again the Cards are on pace for their lowest interception total since 2010 (currently sitting at 57th in the country). Getting the ball back to a very prolific offense would certainly help put points on the board and likely translate to more wins. It is simply not happening.
So, what do we do now? I don’t know. Firing a guy nine games into the season in year one of his contract certainly doesn’t create the best atmosphere for future coaching searches, but at this point I could really give a damn about Louisville taking a PR hit. Sirmon, nine games into his Louisville career, has performed well below any reasonable expectation that may have been set for him coming into the season. The stats don’t lie, the consistent breakdowns don’t lie, the on field confusion doesn’t lie, and the record of 5-4 with an offense averaging 36.7 points per game certainly does not lie. I’m easily one of the more optimistic fans out there, but there is literally zero ‘past performances’ to point to for Sirmon to offer hope that things can be turned around. Mississippi State was a failure, and that failure has now been passed onto the Louisville football program. That can’t be an acceptable standard moving forward.
Why all hope is not lost:
The first post in this series referred to why hope wasn’t lost for the season, and that things could still be turned around. We’re beyond that point. The ‘hope’ for the rest of this season would be to win out, beat a mediocre bowl team, and try and build momentum heading into 2018. A notch down from that would be to simply beat your rival in the last game of the year. A six win season is a disappointment no matter how you wrap it up and stick it under the tree, but beating Kentucky in one of the six wins would at least let you put a ‘real’ ribbon on the box instead of one of those cheep peel and stick versions. It ain’t gonna be pretty either way, but it doesn’t leave you completely embarrassed come Christmas morning.
All things being fair, Petrino has delivered on his promise to bring offensive minded football back to Louisville. I’ll save you the charts but the Cards are putting up yardage and points the last couple years that rival any season in their history. While he certainly deserves a very large tip of the cap to one Lamar Jackson, he has brought in the talent to field one of the top offensive teams in the country. The issue of course is that he may be sacrificing defensive talent to pull in more and more offensive threats…thus resulting in more points, but not necessarily translating to more wins. The quarterback position seems set for a few years and the wide receivers have talent, but grabbing a few more defensive studs should be priority one, two, and three heading into the offseason.
Three games remain. The atmosphere around the Louisville program one year ago this time was palpable. A national story, college football playoff ranking, the best player in the game competing for a Heisman, it was almost surreal. One year later the agony of a 5-4 season almost makes thing feel that much worse after having experienced the high of 2016. If you want to fold up shop, move on to next year, focus on basketball, etc you certainly have that right. Me, I’ve decided to enjoy the last three games for what they are…three more opportunities to watch the team I support, play a game I love, and cheer on the best player to ever wear a Louisville jersey. We clamor for football from April to September every year, your interest in counting down the days until the season kicks off is proof of that, let’s not let a couple poor performances distract us from missing the final ‘quarter mile’ of another Louisville football season. You never know what you might miss.
See you all back here in four weeks.