Welcome back to another edition 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. While the overwhelming majority of handicappers did not pick the Cards to finish in the money this year, much less win the race we’ve certainly seen crazier things happen, and the tendencies we identify in this stakes race may very well help us recognize some areas the head trainer (Petrino) needs to focus on in futures. Let’s get caught up with how the horse from the Louisville barn has fared in the first quarter mile…
Once again in 2018 the Louisville horse has not been blessed with any easy draw. The number two post position isn’t horrible, but being saddled up next to the defending champion ‘Alabama’ out of Gate 1 is a quick test of just how well the horse is prepared both mentally and physically for this race, likely the reason Petrino opted for blinders in this year’s contest. The Tide, who had some question marks leading up to race about who trainer Nick Saban wanted to get the ride appear to be sticking with Tua Tagovailoa, the Hawaiian who can be a little unorthodox but has shown he can win the big one when his number is called. Alabama is once again the favorite on the board getting 2-1 odds as folks seem to like the frontrunner. He always gets out of the gate fast, and has absolutely dominated early completion the past few years. The horses are in the gate… AND THEY’RE OFF!!
As expected Alabama comes out the gate quick but Tua in an unpredicted turn of events is already giving the horse some whip just four strides in. Louisville is fighting to keep pace but is starting to lag behind as…it appears…wait…the Louisville horse has two riders!! I’m not sure if the new gate formation caused an issue but I believe one of the starters is also on the horse. Even the most inexperienced track announcer can see….that is one too many men on the track…having finally dumped the extra rider Louisville is nowhere near the front and Tua has the Alabama thoroughbred a solid three lengths ahead of the rest of the field before we’ve even reached the 1/16th pole. Out of the gate quickly Alabama will likely be taking on any challenger that approaches from behind as the definitive favorite. Just 20 seconds into the contest they have great position along the rail looking for a clean ride…
Speaking of a clean ride, an absolute monsoon has quickly materialized right over the track and visibility is almost nonexistent from my spot here in the booth. From the monitor I can see the wiry horse out of Terre Haute, IN battling with the Louisville horse towards the middle of the pack. I think many saw ‘Indiana State’ as an also ran in this race but the rain has certainly played a factor in them keeping up with a few of the other horses who would normally overpower them in a swift manor. The sloppy track without question has delayed…and delayed…and delayed the Louisville horse from making a move but as we approach the first turn its seems like the horse will finally use it’s much larger and much stronger legs to pound through the slop and leave it’s challenger fading towards the back…
Entering the first turn the showers have quickly subsided and the jockey on the Louisville horse is absolutely covered in mud and is nearly unrecognizable after getting stuck behind some other horses who broke much quicker. I know I had some visibility issues during that storm but it seems to me as if the horse has somehow garnered a completely new rider. Nevermind that for now as the ‘Western’ thoroughbred has snuck up on the inside and is pushing ‘Louisville’ four or five wide off the rail. ‘Louisville’ is a little jumpy moving in and out, sliding left, sliding right…this new rider appears comfortable in open space but needs to reign it in a little and get a tighter line into the turn or he’ll never pass the foal from down in Bowling Green. It’s neck and neck as they approach the 3/4 pole and ‘Louisville’ has finally calmed down some and edged out ‘Western’ as they finish the initial quarter mile now sliding into a much better spot as they start to approach the next group of three horses. I’d say ’Louisville’ is a bit further back from the front than many anticipated at this spot in the race but they are certainly not out of the running just yet…
If we go back to August and ask the casual fan where the Cards would be sitting in the win-loss column after the first three games this year the overwhelming response would have been 2-1. Here we are, three games in, and the Cards sit firmly at…2-1. So why all the panic? Why all the anxiety? Why the doom and gloom mentality? Let’s discuss…
Areas of Concern
Offense- Things are not great on the offensive side of the ball. There is no sugar-coating it, no glossing over it, no roundabout way to side step it. The offensive production from a team that “may be the best offensive team” we’ve seen since Petrino’s return is anything but. And before we get the shovels out to bury one player in particular, this is a team effort of embarrassments. The headlines and the radio chatter focus mainly on the QB position and most of that is warranted, it’s tough to argue that you can field an efficient offensive squad without a competent quarterback. As a fan, and as human being I feel for Puma. The young man has been propped up as the heir apparent for three full seasons, the face of the new offense, the return to Bobby Ball 1.0, and he just hasn’t gotten it done. After a solid performance against Alabama Puma went 8-17 for 89 yards with two interceptions against two overmatched foes in Indiana State and Western Kentucky. That’s not going to turn heads, that’s not going to put up points, and most importantly it’s not going to win games. Maybe its physical (turf toe), maybe its mental (pressure of following Lamar) but something isn’t right and I agree a change needed to be made. I have no doubt he can work his way back but the production was not that of a winning quarterback in the ACC. Now if you want to keep pointing fingers, there is plenty to go around on that side of the ball. The AFROS, albeit the wrong end of some shaky play at QB, have done little to aid the passer in terms of getting separation, beating their man one-on-one, and of course the dreaded “dropsies” that have returned. If you’re still feeling frisky I’m completely fine with anyone saying the Offensive line, which I spent three months this summer hyping up, has underperformed as well. Not getting a push against Alabama is understandable. Not getting a push against ISU and WKU is not. Period. For a group with a couple vets and a few more two year contributors not knowing your assignments, not being able to pass protect, and lacking the drive to get to your second level blocks is simply unacceptable. Okay, enough talk, let’s see some real numbers…
[Every week I’m going to chart where the Cards rank nationally in a multitude of various offensive and defensive statistics. Some of these are easier to read than others but the overall theme should be pretty easy to decipher just glancing at the data. This season one would assume a lot of these numbers would start low (playing against Alabama) and then jump up a decent amount the next two weeks against lesser opponents. Nope.]
- For these offensive statistics the first thing that should jump out is that Louisville does not rank higher than 50th on the national level in ANY offensive category…at all…and the only area they crack the top 80 is ‘Redzone Conversion %’
- The Cards total offense (120); Scoring Offense (109); Passing Offense (113); First downs (104); and 3rd Down Conversion % (120) are all trending down AFTER the Alabama game
- Malik has helped the Rushing Offense jump to *cough cough* 98th nationally
- While not all on the O-Line the Cards are 89th (Sacks Allowed) and 112th (TFL Allowed) in the two categories representing defensive penetration
Defense- Things will get better, they said…it was Peter Sirmon, they said…
In actuality, the defense has changed. There is no denying the fact that BVG blitzes more than we did last year, loads up the box more than we did last year, and has his guys in multiple formations on each drive (something we rarely did last year) but while the ingredients seem to be different the same exact cake is coming out of the oven. What good is blitzing the passer if you can’t get to him? What good is stacking the line of scrimmage with eight guys if they can still get four yards up the gut? What good is fielding an exotic defense is they can still complete a 10 yard out? I may be a little harsh on my assessment thus far but the revamped secondary was supposed to change things. The new bodies on the defensive line where supposed to be “eating” all day in the opponents backfield. It’s just not happening. If you follow Bill Connelly’s advance statistics he does a great job of tracking “havoc” plays, or the rate at which a defense is able to get a sack, a fumble, a tackle for loss, a broken up pass, or an interception…the very things we were promised with the “aggressive” BVG defense. Want to know where the Cards rank in that category? Not good. Louisville currently sits at 9.5% (meaning less than 10% of their plays qualify as creating havoc), good enough to place them at 129th in the country, out of 130. I don’t need to check the stats from last year to determine they are actually worse at this point than they were in 2017. In addition Connelly also charts ‘PD to INC’ percentage or in other words, what percentage of your opponent’s incompletions were due to your aggressiveness in breaking up the pass or getting an interception. The Cards secondary sits at 22.6%, (126th overall) meaning 77.4% of the opponents incompletions are likely due to bad throws or drops and not much to do with great coverage. Once again, enough of my talk..peep the chart.
- From the eye test alone you can quickly garner that the defense (nationally) is performing better overall than the offense
- Turover Margin (111) and Forced Fumbles (63) are the only two categories that are lower today than they where after Week 1
- None of the four major defensive categories are ranked in the Top 50 nationally. (Total Defense:82, Scoring Defense: 72, Passing Defense:57, Rushing Defense:96)
- May need to rethink that whole 3rd and Grantham thing as the Cards are 117th nationally in Opponents 3rd Down Conversion percentage (46.9%)
- Easy to see why the ‘Havoc’ ranking is so low as Cards are not Top 60 in any of those disruption statistics (Sacks/TFL/INT/FF)
When I’m looking over the information in another way I can easily see where progress is being made utilizing a progressive radar chart. In the three charts below what you should see is a large ‘circle’ for Alabama (high ratings across the board) and then the ‘circle’ progressively get smaller against lesser competition the next two weeks. Surprise…that is not what we see. I split the chart into a left side (offense) and right side (defense) so you can objectively see if one side of the ball is starting to perform better (from a rankings standpoint) than the other as the circle will become smaller, getting closer to the higher rankings at the center axis.
*These are progressive rankings, meaning they are a cumulative total for the season, not how the team performed each week
- Even though this is the same data as above you can see that the offense is still flirting with the outer circumference (lowest rankings) while the defense has started to creep in for some areas.
- Penalties and TO Margin at the top and the bottom are “shared” statistics and should be considered for both sides of the ball
For reference here is Alabama’s current radar for the 2018 season:
Areas of Promise
Malik Cunningham- Although he has been asked to do a lot, for the most part Malik has responded to the call. There are areas he can improve without a doubt but he was brought into the game twice to help generate offense (check), improve the rushing attack (check, check), and at the end of the day win the game (check, check, check). While his legs get most of the attention his success as a passer shouldn’t be overshadowed. In his two games of limited action he’s 16 for 25 (64% completion) with over 160 yards and zero interceptions.
His QB rating for the year is currently 131.97 which is actually better than Lamar’s final rating (126.78) at the end of 2015. Accuracy is a concern, reading his progressions is a concern, and improving his timing is a concern, but all three of those things can be fixed with coaching. Is he the long term answer at QB? I’m not sure, but I like him responding to the challenges he’s been given so far.
Young Talent on Defense- Even though the defense as a unit has not been what we expected I’ve been encouraged by a few of the young guys put into a position they didn’t expect to be in just a few weeks ago. With both Greenard and Ethridge (arguably two biggest pieces on defense) missing time the last couple weeks we’ve seen Jarrett Jackson, Robert Hicks, and Nick Okeke all perform well in their absence.
Both Jackson and Hicks are Top 10 in team tackles and Jackson also leads the team in both TFL and sacks (2), he also has a forced fumble to his name as well. While I think most of us knew these guys would play at some point this year they, like Malik, have answered the ‘next man up’ mantra and performed well for young men just a few months into the program.
Special Teams- I am admittedly a special team’s fan boy, but as of today this group, per Bill Connelly’s S&P ratings, is the highest rated phase of the game for Louisville. Blanton ‘Goldenfoot’ Creque is 3-3 on field goals and 8-8 on PATs. Mason King is dropping a 43.6 yard per punt average (24th nationally) with 7 fair catches and 7 inside the 20. Rodjay Burns has four punt returns with a 30.5 yd/ret average (4th in the nation) and a touchdown to name. Hassan Hall doesn’t have enough kick returns to qualify for national rankings but his 40yd/ret average would be good enough for sixth in the country. This group is balling out, and their performance has unquestionably played a part in both wins this year.
-The offense, statistically speaking, is one of the worst offenses in the country. Their scoring offense is in the bottom 17% in the nation and their Total Offense is in the bottom 8% in the nation.
-The defense, although better than the offense, is currently worse (statistically) than where they finished in 2017. Their ‘Scoring Defense’, after playing 2 inferior opponents is at 72nd in the country. They finished 70th last year. Their ‘Total Defense’ is ranked 82nd in the nation currently after finishing 62nd last year and their rushing defense (96th vs 63rd) is also worse as well. Not good.
-The defense is certainly more aggressive than they were last season but their ‘havoc’ rate (% of disruptive plays) ranks 129th out of 130 teams. It’s like when a running back cuts back across the field, jukes two guys, cuts back across the field, spins out of a tackle and then…gets back to the line of scrimmage for no gain. Lots of movement, but nothing really to show for it.
-Special teams is still really good.
Look for Part 2 of this series after the Georgia Tech game. I hope to include some additional data points and analysis and hopefully a more cheerful message about how the Cards are turning things around. Until then, saddle up and enjoy the ride.