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Louisville Football: Thoughts at the 3⁄4 Pole

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The first segment of the Cards race towards a championship

143rd Kentucky Derby Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

When the schedule was released earlier this year, the majority of Cardinals fans knew that in order to compete for an ACC crown, and then look toward the ultimate goal of a National Championship, UofL would have to come out of the gate quick, taking on the role of a sprinter. With two very winnable games early and then a key match-up with the defending champ in Game 3, stumbling out of the gate or getting pinned behind a more powerful horse (Clemson) early in the race was going to be tough to overcome. Sitting at the ¾ pole the Cards are…well, not in a great position.

The Cards didn’t get a great post draw to begin with, forced to come out of the auxiliary gate by having to face Cardinal alum and Petrino protégé Jeff Brohm in Game 1. While it’s almost never seen in horse racing, the Cards somehow managed to rack up 10 false starts before the contest even began (Almost as if the Lasix they had been given to stop the bleeding from the last three ‘races’ didn’t work). Once the race officially started things weren’t horrible, but it simply took too long for UofL to make the move in towards the rail, constantly fighting for position after appearing to ‘fumble’ early opportunities to slide inside. By the time the Cards had made their move they realized they were not going to able to set the quick pace they had hoped to early on….

Once the field began to thin up towards the front the Cards had some open dirt and the offensive aggressiveness began to pick up where they left off in the early 2016 races, making plays, and putting up good numbers. The surprise was that as the Cards appeared to finally settle into a good rhythm the Tar Heels in those baby blue silks, who many thought would be a middle of the pack challenger, was not only keeping pace, but pushing them early. After passing the 1/16 pole the times came in around where most fans expected to see them (Top 5 in total offense, Lamar 2nd in the country in yards/g, etc), but instead of separating themselves, both the early challengers remained neck and neck with the Cards for far too long in many folks eyes…

The expected frontrunner Clemson had a great break and was running well as the Cards approach from the outside in the clubhouse turn. Having fought off both prior challenges the Cards were in great position (Gameday, home field, blackout, 8:00pm, freshman QB, etc) to make a move at the favorite but every time they tried to push, Clemson responded accordingly and began to separate even more. The apprentice rider (K. Bryant) appears to have plenty of horse under him as they reach the ¾ pole and the Cards are a solid two lengths behind the defending champs as they head towards the backstretch…

Why the start is concerning:

Penalties- While the Cards appear to be righting the ship the last couple weeks things did not start out great. In fact, they were horrible. With 16 penalties in their first game the Cards once again sat in the cellar nationally, racking up more flags than anyone else in the country. While there was a significant drop off in the last couple weeks the Cards 26 penalties still have them sitting at 111th in the country which is simply unacceptable for a team who has been plagued by lack of discipline the last four years. At some point the ‘correctable mistakes’ are not an outlier but a reality as to what you can expect to see week to week.

Turnovers- If penalties were considered the elephant in the room from the last few years; turnovers are the only slightly smaller elephant that seems to make just as much noise. The last two seasons the Cards have finished the year on the wrong side of the turnover margin with things reaching a head last year, wrapping up 2016 with a -7 number, placing them at 107th in the country. While we can’t expect a Hotrod Holliman ball hawk every season (Cards finished that year at #2 in country with +17) it’s not unrealistic to think that a Power 5 team who supposedly placed an emphasis on ball security in the offseason should not drop two balls inside the 5 yard line game one and have your #1 wide out fumble in open space. Now, in all fairness, the offense has recovered well the last two weeks with only one turnover (pick six against Clemson) but the defense has been nonexistent on that front and leaves the team sitting back at zero in the turnover margin category through the first three games. A less aggressive defense (which is blatantly obviously that is what we are running now) will not force as many turnovers, but considering that 3 of the turnovers they do have were off poorly thrown balls by Purdue, things do not look great moving forward. It appears the days of forcing turnovers and then punishing teams with a quick strike are slowly coming to an end.

Defense- I was excited about this defense, the front 7 especially. Getting a close to 100% Trevon Young in combination with Hearns, Richardson, Bailey, Thomas, Greenard, etc they certainly had the making of being not only a great rushing defense, but having the experience to be solid in coverage as well. I thought the defense played well in Game 1, controlling the run and forcing Purdue to make passes but when they started to complete those passes…nothing changed. The knock on Petrino has always been his lack of in game adjustments, and unfortunately it appears to be carrying over to the defensive side of the ball as well. While a three game sample size is not always fair, I think we’ve seen enough so far to feel comfortable saying Peter Sirmon is allergic to blitz packages. While I have not physically seen the hives myself it’s the only logical explanation I can think of. We have what I consider to be two of the best pass rushers in the conference, and we refuse to apply pressure with extra bodies. As a response, quarterbacks who are not that experienced are absolutely shredding the defense. Not just picking them apart, not just grabbing chunk plays…shredding them. Currently the Louisville defense, who has produced a Top 20 unit the last 4 years, sits at 123rd in the country in passing yards per game (331yds).

One. Hundred. And. Twenty. Third.

If you want to say they’re playing it safe and looking to stop the run, well, you’re half right. That certainly appears to be the goal the last couple weeks, but as of today that same Louisville defense is allowing 121.7 rushing yards per game, placing them at 43rd in the country. For those keeping track at home, that’s 452.7 yards per game. A defense which has finished 14th, 18th, 6th, 1st, 23rd, 23rd, and 14th in the country the last seven years now sits at 105th. Something has to change.

Why all hope is not lost:

Lamar is still good- While we have seen firsthand that one man cannot carry the load, if there is one player in college football this year that can make enough “how did he do that” plays to get a team out of a hole, it’s Lamar Jackson. Many fans, myself included, left the game on Saturday feeling as if Lamar had performed well below his capabilities and even described it as an off game for him. You can hit me with the ‘garbage stats’ line or any other Clemson/BBN narrative you like, but truth of the matter is he finished the game with 381 yards of offense and 3 touchdowns. As an act of sanity I flashed back to a game I remember well, the blackout game against WVU back in 2006. From what I recalled Brohm played well that night and I knew we put up 44 points, so what kind of numbers did he post in comparison? [drum-roll, please] 340 yards of total offense and 1 touchdown. Point being, we have a special talent here folks, let’s not become complacent with what he can do. There is a shiny new trophy in the universities trophy case proving he is in rarified air. He can put the team on his back and help win a game or two with his play alone.

Offensive playmakers- As good as Lamar is, and as much as he dominates the stat line, there are a couple other bonafide studs on the offensive side of the ball who have proven they can make plays. Jaylen and Seth got a fair share of pub in the offseason, and both have shown their value early on, but Dez Fitzpatrick is going to catch a lot of touchdowns in the next few seasons. Through three games Dez has a 21.1 yds/rec average (32nd in country) and four touchdowns (tied for 5th in the country), leading the team in both categories. He has flashed great hands, solid speed, and the ability to go get the ball in traffic. Lamar has shown early on he trusts Dez with the ball, and that could turn into something special as the season progresses. Of course, having weapons at wideout creates a one dimensional attack unless you can run the ball with consistency. The head scratcher then becomes why in the world Malik Williams is not getting 15+ carries a game. He can run over people, he can make cuts, and he showed last week he has no problem hurdling a man’s entire family. As it stands today his 19 carries for 184yards has him sitting at 9.68yd/att. Yep, the guy is nearly averaging a first down per carry (good enough to have him at 11th in the country). I heard the Petrino comment that he messed up on a play last week and went the wrong direction, and I completely understand how a mistake like that can not only ruin a play but potentially get someone hurt…BUT…it doesn’t in my mind justify sitting him down for the night. If Saquon Barkley at Penn State or Jonathon Taylor at Wisconsin blows an assignment are they getting benched? Not a chance. Malik’s skill set could have been utilized to help establish the run against a very good defensive front last Saturday, but instead we opted to go with a pass heavy attack and only give ‘non-Lamar’ backs 10 attempts the whole game. Through three games my opinion is that Malik deserves more reps. It’s on him to know the plays, but it s on the staff to give him an opportunity to redeem himself as well. It we want to live by the ‘Feed the studs’ mentality, they can’t all be wideouts.

Goals are still attainable- Getting embarrassed on your home-field in a prime time game is not ideal, but when the paper rolls off the press the next morning that ‘1’ in your loss column looks the same as if you just lost a nail bitter. The long and short is that even though your perception takes a hit, you still only have one loss. The product on Saturday may not be extremely encouraging to some moving forward, but running the table or only losing one more game the rest of the way is very possible. Are we at the point in Louisville football where a 10-2 season in arguable the toughest division in college football is now a disappointment? The answer of course is, no. I know this because back during ‘The Cardinal Countdown’ I asked you all, the very same readers of this post, where your expectations were for the 2017 season. The overwhelming majority (41%) had the Cards at 10-2, and going to a major bowl. The ACC is not lost, although the road becomes much more challenging moving forward, and a major bowl is certainly in play at this point. If you consider that running the table would likely mean the Cards only loss came to a team who will most likely be competing for a championship in a few months. Room to improve? Absolutely, but nothing to hang you head about.

***

We’ve got a lot of football left to play, and I know the challenge of watching your team lay an egg and then trying to get excited about a nooner against Kent State, but that’s what being a fan is. Wins, losses, good , bad, it’s all part of the package. The ‘backstretch’ looks fairly promising for the Cards so hopefully we’re back here in three weeks talking about a nationally ranked team moving forward with a 5-1 start. Hitting their stride the next three weeks will be crucial in the Cards making a late push in the

ACC and on a national level. Stay tuned…they don’t call it the ‘fastest three months in sports’ for no reason. [whispers] They don’t call it that.

Go Cards.