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Louisville Football: Thoughts From the Finish Line

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The 144th Kentucky Derby Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Welcome back to the final part of the Cards ‘Race Toward a Championship’ where we follow along with the seasons progress as it unfolds on the magnificent dirt track in front of us. If you missed Part 1, Part 2, or Part 3 feel free to go back and check it out now. I’m looking for a reason one would want to go back and relive the nightmare this season has been and I’m coming up empty, but hey, some people just love to watch the world burn.

Before we jump in let me just say this….I’m as optimistic as they come when talking about fandom, I spend every summer engineering the hype train for the upcoming season but today…today I’m mad about what I saw this year and this article, well, it isn’t going to be pretty. Let’s catch the conclusion to this monstrosity and then dive into some troubling statistics...

As the Cards come out of the turn and head for home they can see Syracuse, NC State and the thoroughbred from the Lexington barn all grouped together…the problem is they are a solid eight to ten lengths behind that group and show no signs of gaining any ground in the final quarter mile. Coming into this race I know many handicappers expected Louisville to be in that same grouping, and potentially fighting to get into the money, but that has just not happened this year. The Cards jockey will just gallop out the final furlong and a disappointing showing from the maiden has finally come to an end. The good news is the horse still appears healthy and capable to compete again. A new trainer, a new jockey, a new racing style…numerous things will have to change for him to be considered a threat in this annual contest in 2019. We’ll have to wait and see what the next seven months hold coming out of the Louisville barn before we can even attempt to handicap next year’s race.

Areas of Concern

To put it as eloquently as possible, this year sucked. The hype surrounding a new offensive approach with Jawon, a new defensive coordinator to fix the problems on that side of the ball, opening the season against the defending National Champion….it was fool’s gold. Hindsight being what it is of course we can look back now and call out why all that talk was nonsense.

The Cards fielding a “better offense” after losing arguably the best athlete in the programs history….that was just dumb.

The Cards fixing a bad defense with a new coordinator who was previously unemployed and was let go from his last job because he wasn’t producing…yeah, that’ll work great.

Starting the season with a new QB, no true number one running back, and a new defensive approach against the best team in the country…that should help with team moral moving forward.

The truth of the matter, as we all now know, is that things can change very quickly in the wild world of college football. It’s easy to point to the quarterback position, or the running back position, or the offensive line, or the defensive line, or the coaching staff and say “they’re alone the reason this season was a failure”, but the real answer is somewhere around Option W…all of the above, and then some. In my opinion, not a single position coach or coordinator earned their paycheck this year on the Cards staff.

Louisville v Boston College Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

Not a single position group excelled at their job, not a single position group played above their level of expectation, and not a single position group played disciplined each and every week…and that’s likely why almost all of the staff will not be a part of the program in 2019. The players were not prepared and not put in a position to succeed, but the blame doesn’t stop there as it appeared many players were okay with this and showed little effort in trying to overcome that challenge…and that’s likely why many of them will also not be a part of the program in 2019. So, what do you get when you combine a staff that wasn’t getting guys prepared and a group of players that weren’t all that bothered by it…some pretty garbage football.

Defense

Bringing in Brian VanGorder wasn’t necessarily the answer many were looking for after 2017, but there was no denying the general consensus of the fanbase….

Fans: There is no way we can be worse than we were last season.

BVG: Hold my beer

The Cards defense in almost every single measurable category regressed from 2017. Statistically speaking the Cards were easily one of the worst Power 5 defenses in the country and in the bottom 10% overall in most major areas. I was discouraged during the season because I grew numb to it all, but now, looking back, I’m pissed. I tracked numerous defensive statistics on a weekly basis so I could see how both sides of the ball trended during the year. Using the slider below you can see all the stats I tracked when sliding the bar to the right or for a more simplistic view of just the major categories when sliding it to the left.

After a “deep and exhaustive” analysis I have determined that the Cards defense started bad, sneaked up to average against FCS schools and then trended down, and then down some more, and then down a little more….all the way to one of the worst in the country. The only category in which they were statistically respectable was passing defense, but we all saw that was because teams knew they didn’t have to pass in order to win the game. In fact, if you exclude Georgia Tech, who only attempted two passes, every other team had a completion percentage over 51% and the average opponent passer rating was 160.48. To put that in context, that passer rating would have ranked 8th nationally among QBs, meaning the Cards secondary made their opponents appear on average to be a Top 10 quarterback in the country. Not great. Of course, the big issue was how we allowed the opposing running game to churn out yards on top of yards on the ground. How bad was it? Well, I charted the Cards opponents’ season rushing average versus what they did against UofL. The results were ugly, but not surprising…

Every single team, with the exception of Florida State, ran for more yards against Louisville than what they averaged for the year. The majority of teams (8) went for over 30 yards more than their average; many (5) went for over 100 yards more than their average, and a couple (2) went for over 200 yards more than their season average. For the whole year teams ran for 97.9 more yards against UofL on average than they did against every other team they played. Yikes.

The rushing defense wasn’t the only problem though; the issue was that the “aggressive” defense we were sold from BVG was anything but. Sure, he blitzed more than Sirmon, and he mixed in some more exotic fronts, but none of them worked. Louisville had zero games all season where they made more than 9 impact plays in the backfield (sacks/tackles for loss/QB hurry), meaning they weren’t getting any penetration up front. For the season UofL only averaged 5.4 backfield impact plays per game, almost a full ten (yes, TEN) plays fewer than their opponents.

Imagine that of the sixty or so plays a team runs each game if ten more of those plays resulted in a sack, a tackle for loss, or a quarterback hurry? That could really impact the game don’t you think? Bill Connelly does a much better job than me at tracking this stuff and his ‘Havoc’ percentage is a great measurement at how often a defense forces the other team into a negative play. UofL’s havoc rate was 9.1%, meaning less than 10% of the time were they getting a TFL, forcing a fumble, or breaking up or intercepting a pass. Know where that ranked nationally? Dead. Last. 130th. The Cards lack of pressure up front and lack of turnovers meant they were fielding a defense that was just creating a minor inconvenience on your mission to score points. They may have slowed you down some, but it was gonna happen one way or the other (Hence the reason they were 128th nationally in scoring defense). Speaking of turnovers, the Cards stunk it up there as well. With a respectable +2 against UK the Cards slid up to…wait for it…-12 on the season, landing them at 125th in the nation.

How bad is that in comparison to seasons past? In 2017, when the Cards had what many considered a very bland and “non-agressive” defense, they had 25 turnovers. Granted, that was the lowest total since 2012, but a full fourteen turnovers more than we saw this year (11).

That defensive “aggressiveness” was not resulting in penetration, and not resulting in turnovers, but surely it was helping limit opponents third down effectiveness, right? You already know the answer. As those with a keen eye may have seen above, Louisville was once again, dead last in the entire country in opponents 3rd down conversion percentage. Every single team (except FSU) converted 3rd downs at a higher rate against UofL than they did all season and two teams converted at over 40% higher…FORTY FREAKIN’ PERCENT.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again so the folks in the back can here. Todd Grantham was far from a perfect DC, and it certainly felt at times that he would typically allow teams to convert on 3rd downs when the Cards needed a big stop, but this my friends, this is on a whole other level. You can toss ‘3rd and Grantham’ into a roaring fire at this point. Louisville finished the regular season last in opponents 3rd down conversion. Last. In all of college football. No other team in the country was worse than them. Want to know where they finished in that same category in 2014? 10th. 2015? 35th. 2016? 10th. Even Sirmon had them at 87th last year. It’s not frustrating; it’s not discouraging…its flat out embarrassing. And since you brought up embarrassing, let’s go ahead and toss out the ol’ penalties chart. Take a peek at this treasure trove of discipline…

Cards finished 2018 with 101 penalties on the year, landing them at 118th nationally. That was up 19 from last season (82) but unfortunately is not a new trend. Since BP 2.0 started the Cards have had over 90 penalties every single season except 2017.

I could throw out a few more stats but you get the point. The defense was abysmal and every coach should be mortified with the product they put out on the field. I wish no ill will towards anyone but I have a tough time thinking that more than one or two of them find a landing spot in 2019. To think the man in charge was making nearly $1 million to lead this unit is nauseating. The new staff will have some talent on that side of the ball, but for the third straight season they will be learning a new defensive philosophy and that’s not fair to the kids or the new coaches coming in. And it ticks me off.

Offense

If there is one thing we could count on heading into 2018 it was that a Bobby Petrino offense was always going to score points. He had done it consistently for years, multiple quarterbacks, multiple running backs…he always called a game that set his team up to win.

Welcome to the upside down of 2018 Louisville football.

The play calling was questionable at times (looking at you WKU/FSU games), the quarterback who has been in the system three years seemed unprepared (sup, Nick?) and the offensive line that I stuck my neck out for all summer played like it was 2015 all over again. I tracked some offensive statistics similar to those I did on defense above. Slider to the right shows them all, slider to the left shows just the major categories.

Every offensive category I tracked finished 75th or worse on a national scale. It’s wasn’t a “down year” for the offense, it was a season that turned them into one of the worst offensive teams in the country. Finishing the season averaging 19.8pts/g had them at 123rd in the nation and tied with Michigan State as the worst Power 5 scoring offense. While the passing attack seemed to struggle, the constant merry-go-round of running backs never allowed one guy to get into a rhythm and never let the team establish any type of ground threat outside of Malik Cunningham. I showed this to you early this year but now that the season is complete we can see once again, when the running back group was given chances (+20 attempts) 4 out the 6 games they went for over 100 yards. Only against a stout Clemson defense and a game against Syracuse where they never really got going were the backs held in check in those examples. The counter point is, why did no one separate themselves and why didn’t Coach Smith single out a player (*cough* Hassan Hall *cough* Colin Wilson) when he seemed to be performing well and give him the lion share of carries?

But, to be fair, the rushing attack is not just limited to the backs and Malik certainly played a role in keeping the front seven honest. The problem was that even in the games he performed well the Cards went the first seven games against FBS opponents without breaking their opponents rushing yards allowed average. Even when teams consistently gave up yards on the ground (UVA, FSU, BC) the Cards never took advantage of that until the end of the year.

There is no doubt Coach Ward wanted to establish the ground game and he rode the rushing attack all night long...Lionel style. The problem was that we went from an unbalanced attack in one direction to an unbalanced attack in the other. With Bobby calling the shots we passed, passed, and then in 3rd and 1 situations…we passed again. The Cards number of passing attempts were in the 40s most weeks and even hit 54 attempts against Wake. The final two games were the lowest number of passing attempts all season (25, 16) against FBS teams, and even the Syracuse game they only had 31. The result was a passing attack that early in the year appeared to be getting the best of the defense to one that looked like it couldn’t pass its way out of a paperbag.

At first glance it may appear the Cards passing attack was firing on all cylinders early in the year but while the pass happy approach was beating out opposing teams passing average their passing offense never got above 65th nationally, which was ironically after Game 1 when they played Ala-freakin-bama. Of course it’s challenging to establish a consistent passing threat without a good pocket or a solid run game without any blocking and let me tell you my friends, the Cards had neither. When Coach Summers came back in early 2017 I was excited about what he could do with a talented O-line and boy or boy did he deliver. There was no denying that the O-line last year improved and was one of the better position groups on the team. So, after only losing Geron Christian as a major contributor one would assume they would once again be a dominant force up front. Nope. The Cards line reverted back to silly penalties (we just got another false start), poor pass blocking, and didn’t do the run game any favors. I went back and looked at how the line performed the last eight seasons adding a few notable changes on the timeline.

The upward trend with the Charlie Strong regime (Dave Borbely) dropped off when Coach Klenakis took over the O-Line responsibilities but took a big jump back up when Summers returned last season. Then, 2018….they fell right back into the Klenakis cove, and I have no clue why. What I do know is that poor O-line play certainly didn’t help create any type of offensive consistency or allow a struggling QB time to try and slow down the game. That my fellow fans is what they call a domino effect.

TL;DR

· The defense was statistically one of the worst teams in the country overall

· The defense finished dead last in opponents 3rd Down Conversion %

· The defense finished next to last in Scoring Defense for all Power 5 programs

· The defense finished dead last in ‘Havoc Rate’ or % of plays they created a negative impact

· The defense finished the season averaging only 5.4 impact plays in the backfield each game, almost ten plays fewer than their opponents.

· The offense finished 75th or worse nationally in all major categories

· The offense finished tied for last in Scoring Offense for all Power 5 programs at 19.8pt/g

· The Cards rushing attack didn’t beat their opponents average the first seven games

· The Cards O-line reverted back to 2014/2015 numbers in Sacks and TFL allowed

***

I didn’t enjoy writing this. My outlook is always one of trying to find the positive in each scenario and taking the glass half full approach but this season made that nearly impossible. The college football season is one of my favorite times of the year and frankly, UofL kind of ruined the whole thing for me. As I said before, I was numb to it all as it played out before me each week but as I started putting it all down on paper I just got more and more frustrated. The good news is that this will be my therapy session to close out 2018 and I can personally now turn the page looking forward to what we have moving forward.

In the next few days we should find out who the new coach for the University of Louisville football team will be, and that should excite us all. We can spend days, weeks, months talking about his new schemes, philosophies, offensive identity, defensive coaches, position coaches, etc. While the Cards have some talented athletes make no mistake that this will be a rebuilding process, and the culture around the program will take time to rejuvenate. Have patience, be understanding, but most importantly be prepared to enjoy Louisville football once again.

Go Cards.