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Louisville Football: Thoughts from the Finish Line

The final segment of the Cards race towards a championship

Horse Racing: 143rd Kentucky Derby Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

The final quarter mile is in the books. If you missed Parts One, Two, or Three, go back and check them out. Let’s jump right in…

Coming out of the final turn and into the homestretch a few of the horses in the second group appear to be losing some steam and Lamar is looking to make a late push along the rail, moving towards a more respectable finish. The Cavaliers are in the back of that second group and have shown some signs that they are starting to fade. Kurt Benkert is on the ride and keeps asking for more but I think he may be one “kurt” too short today. The Cardinals are responding to Lamar’s whip and showing more life than we’ve seen from them since the first quarter mile. The Cardinals cruise past the Cavaliers and are looking towards trying to pick off a couple more stragglers as the approach the 1/8 pole….

The Orangemen out the Syracuse barn came into the race with some mild expectations and have pulled off some surprising moves early in the race, including overtaking the even money favorite Clemson head to head in the backstretch. In the third quarter mile an apparent injury to jockey Eric Dungey seems to have derailed any hope they had in competing with the top dogs and after settling in toward the back of the second group they are quickly at risk of being overtaken by the Cardinals as well. The powerful strides from the Cardinals are starting to finally prove what many handicappers pointed to before the race began, they have the legs to run with any horse in this race. The “ground attack” is coming alive and Lamar has his sights set on the rival thoroughbred from the barn over in Lexington as they approach the finish line…

Coming into the race one side story was about the surprising finish to last year’s contest where a less athletic and less talented Wildcat horse somehow clipped the Cardinals at the finish line as they were fading over the last furlong. The Lexington barn had been quite boisterous about that finish, and heading into this years battle had somehow convinced themselves that they were now the better horse, even after being beaten head-to-head the previous five races in which they had both competed. Lamar told me prior to the race that the lackluster finish in 2016 had stuck with him and vowed to not let it happen again. The Cardinals are still showing a dominant kick as they approach the finish line and are literally running right past the Wildcats as if they’re standing still. Whoa! The Wildcats appeared to just bump the Cardinals two separate times as they were getting passed, and my view was slightly obstructed but I…I think…I think the Wildcat jockey just threw a trashcan at the Cardinal horse. Yes, a trashcan. What the hell? Unfortunately “that’s typical” for horses coming out of that barn, especially in regards to their interaction with any horse from the stable in Louisville. As the Cardinals blow past them the Wildcat horse has now thrown it’s rider and is running in the wrong direction. Someone get this thing under control! I doubt an inquiry will occur since the Cardinals will finish out of the money but worth another look for sure.

As they finally reach the line you could see Lamar was excited with the kick he got down the homestretch and the overall finish in the last quarter mile. Even though it was a disappointing race per the expectations being set in the weeks leading up to it, there are certainly some encouraging things to build on as they look to come back and fight once again to break maiden for an ACC title in 2018.

If you’ve followed this series all season long you know I’ve been pretty hard on three specific areas of this team. The defense, the turnovers, and the penalties. So did things improve in those areas in the final quarter mile? Do we have something to build on as we enter bowl prep and start looking ahead to 2018? The easy answer, on eye test alone, is yes. But let’s take a minute and dive into some entry level statistics to try and validate that opinion…


I was just as critical as anyone this year as the season progressed in regards to how the defense was responding to the new coordinator, the new terminology, the news plays, etc. Challenge after challenge the defense refused to respond to the call and the opposition put up season high numbers on four different occasions. With the exception of the opener against Purdue, who was breaking in a new coach and new offense, every single team in the first ¾ of the season surpassed not only their yards/game average, but also their points/game average. I called it embarrassing four weeks ago, and it was. The last post in this series I made the statement that if something didn’t start to click then a change in the staff was likely on the horizon. Well, something changed. Not only did the defense finally get healthy (J. Alexander, S. Thomas, D. Bailey) but everyone stepped up their game on that side of the ball and it looked like a completely different unit the last “quarter mile”. In the final three games the defense held the opposition under their average in both yardage and points for the first time since Week 1…

So what changed? Other than bringing back the three healthy players I mentioned earlier, a couple specific areas helped in turning the tide. One big boost to this defense was getting off the field. We talked about their poor third down performance in the last post (92nd in the country) but in the last three weeks they found a way to make the play and stop drives before they got started. To provide a visual representation I charted the 3rd Down success differential for each team the Cards played this year. In the chart below you can see that, for example, the Purdue offense was 2.8% more successful on 3rd down against Louisville versus their season long average…

I’d be willing to say that a +/- 2% difference is statistically irrelevant over the course of 12 games, but as you can see, the Cards allowed Clemson, Boston College, Florida State, and Wake Forest to perform significantly better than their season average. In fact, in the weeks leading up to those final three games the defense was getting worse every week, including a season-high 22.2% 3rd down conversion difference for Wake Forest. In the final three games though the Cards held Virginia to their average, crushed Syracuse (-16.6%), and only allowed a small increase for Kentucky who had the benefit of seeing a more relaxed coverage and second team defenders late in the game due to the score differential. Stopping teams on third down was key to limiting the point and yardage totals you saw above, but that wasn’t all. Getting pressure in the backfield was also a large part of the defensive resurgence...

I totaled up the number of sacks, tackles for loss, and QB hurries in each game, in other words, negative plays that resulted from pressure. Once again, in the weeks leading up to the final three games UofL was getting into the backfield fewer times each and every week; including a season low 8 ‘impact plays’ in the backfield against Wake. In the final three weeks the Card’s had a season high 15 impact plays against Virginia, and matched a previous season high (10) since Week 1 against both Syracuse and Kentucky. Trevon Young(1tfl, 1 sack, 3 qb hurries), James Hearns (6 tfl, 4 sacks, 1 qb hurry), and Jonathon Greenard (4 tfl, 2 sacks, 3 qb hurries) all seemed to have an extra gear in the final ‘quarter mile’ and that disruption was key in getting things turned around.


Hard to win ballgames when your offense is turning it over and/or when your defense isn’t forcing a change in possession. Early in the year the Cards were teetering on that ‘break even’ line in the turnover margin category, which isn’t bad, but it certainly isn’t good (national average the last three years is +1). Then, over the span of four games (Kent St-BC) the Cards lost the ball NINE times (Ed Rooney voice), and were only able to offset those by forcing six turnovers of their own. Six games into the season the Cards were sitting at -3 and were trending down quickly. The next couple games allowed things to get more respectable (-1 on the season) but the final three games, just as above, we saw a different level of effort from the defense in forcing turnovers and a nice job from the offense in holding onto the ball…

In the final three games the team went +4 in turnovers, only losing the ball twice while grabbing 5 interceptions and picking up a loose ball fumble. The Cards finished the year +3, good enough for 50th in the country, and while that isn’t worthy of a parade, it is certainly an improvement from mid-season and a vast improvement over their final ranking the last two years (107th and 74th).


The season started off rough…like, 16 penalties in the first game rough. After four straight years of finishing in the bottom 25 nationally all eyes were on the Cards and how disciplined they might be under a new regime. Halfway through the year things were not looking good as the Cards were well above the national average and sitting at 120th in the nation. Then things started to turn around…

Over the next four games the Cards actually dipped below the national average (trendline) and were looking much better than they had at any point since Petrino’s return. In fact, putting up zero penalties against Wake was only the second time a Cardinal team had done that in the last ten seasons. Even though they reverted back to some old habits in the blowout against Syracuse the Cards still finished just slightly above the average moving up a full 43 spots (77th) in the last six games. While the goal should certainly be set higher, it was an increase in 47 spots from last season, with the team committing 25 fewer penalties than one year ago. Baby steps folks. Baby steps.

Moving forward I think one key area that was quickly swept under the rug in light of the other glaring issues in 2017 was the play of the offensive line. A concern most of 2016 and into the offseason, the young line stepped up big in 2017 and under the tutelage of Coach Summers they earned that man his check every single week. While I’ll spare you the week to week breakdown a quick peek at how the line is trending both nationally in sacks allowed and tackles for loss allowed should give you a good idea that things are heading back in the right direction…

In conjunction with protecting Lamar, having the o-line opening holes and establishing the run game was key in the Cards turning things around the final three games. While the whole country knew what Lamar was capable of coming into the season most fans were looking to Reggie or Malik Williams (with Dae Williams and Jeremy Smith injured) to carry the load out of the backfield. The problem was that Petrino and Company seemed to abandon the run all too quickly. In the chart below you can check out the “non-Lamar” carries and corresponding yardage each game. It wasn’t until a healthy Dae Williams returned that Petrino let him, Malik, and Reggie start to get more opportunities…and they took full advantage.

All four times the running backs had over 25 attempts they put up over 150 yards of offense. Sticking with the run resulted in more space for Lamar to throw and directly related to more open space when he held onto the ball running the invertered veer, as the defense finally viewed the running back as a real threat to get the hand off. While Lamar put up more crazy rushing stats and grabbed headlines the backs actually averaged 5.94yds/carry for the whole season, and in the finally three games, with their backs against the wall, Petrino gave them more touches and they responded with a 7.66yd/carry average.

TL;DR Recap

-The eyeball test that told us the defense improved over the final three games was confirmed with some statistics in specific areas they had previously struggled, limiting teams below their season yardage and point total averages in all three contests.

-The defensive pressure in the backfield resulted in a season high (15) impact plays against Virginia and a tie with the second most (10) since Week 1 against both Syracuse and Kentucky.

-The turnover and penalty categories both saw improvement as the season progressed and both finished higher in the national rankings than a season ago

-The offensive line played incredible and got better as the year went on. The two big statistical categories (sacks and TFL allowed) both dropped significantly from 2016 and they reached a four year low in sacks allowed (27).

-The running backs, when given opportunity, performed at an extremely high level averaging as a unit 5.94yd/carry on the season. In the final three games they got over 25 attempts for the first time since Week 2 and responded with 151yd, 300yd, and 191yd performances, respectively.

Things didn’t go quite as planned this year but it’s amazing what three straight solid performances can do for ones confidence. While title aspirations took an early hit, I still enjoyed watching Lamar make Heisman level plays every single week and took joy in watching some of the Seniors make an impact down the stretch. I was pumped for 2017, there was no denying that, and as much as it stinks that things didn’t quite go as planned I’m looking forward to seeing Lamar exit in style down in Jacksonville, and hopefully seeing Puma get some reps as we start to look toward 2018.

Bama is waiting…

269 Days Until Kickoff.