Through the first four weeks of the 2019 season you would be hard pressed to find a Louisville football fan that would offer up substantial complaints about the Scott Satterfield offense, especially in comparison with what we witnessed a season ago. The run first mentality is something different around these parts without question but the results thus far, from eye test alone, have been tough to argue against. Sure, struggles at the quarterback position have limited some of the overall production on that side of the football, but on a high level they are performing pretty well, right?
I asked myself this question while watching the Florida State roller-coaster, wondering if the statistics one third into the football season would agree with my visual analysis. Were the atrocities of last season tricking me into seeing something that wasn’t really there? Were my expectations so low that any sign of improvement triggered a premature admiration? Let’s try and separate fact from fiction.
“The offense has looked much better this season…”
Mostly yes. On a high level when you look at scoring, total yardage, passing offense and rushing offense the numbers bear out what our eyes have seen, they are preforming at a much higher level than in 2018. The two major statistical categories with the biggest differential four games in are likely what one would assume: Total Offense & Rushing Offense
The second tier categories that impact the offensive performance are also looking better compared to last year, although those numbers don’t reflect quite as much progression as one may assume. This season the 3rd down conversion rate (36.5%) still sits at 95th nationally, and the RZ Conversion Rate (84.6%) is actually 21 spots lower nationally (62) than where they sat at this same time in 2018. Not converting 3rd downs and not putting touchdowns on the board inside the redzone is a still problematic. In addition, ball security remains a concern as the offense has gifted seven turnovers already this season, placing them 93rd in the country in that category. A movement up the rankings of 29 spots in the ‘First Downs’ category sounds good but transitioning from 115th nationally in 2018 to 86th as of today is still a bit underwhelming as well. We can see the progress, but the work is far from being complete. One of my major concerns with the run heavy offense is that when they get behind the chains with penalties or sacks, they are not built to recover from those plays and often end the drive with a loss of downs. The lack of a downfield threat is crippling the offensive approach. Which leads to the next big statement….
“The offensive line is so much better than last year…”
Maybe? I think many fall into a similar mindset when it comes to offensive line play on a high level. Are we running the ball well? Are we giving up a ton of negative plays? If the answer is no to either of those then things are probably going alright in the trenches. Except, that’s not always true. While you will never hear me, a lover of all things offensive line, dispute the fact that an offense that relies on the run is largely dependent upon the production of the offensive line, but I will tell you that defining “success” in the run game is somewhat subjective. Just think about it like this, if Louisville runs for 200 yards on the ground, that’s viewed as successful, but if it comes on 55 attempts….maybe not so much. Or if they have a single play go for 50 or 60+ yards on the ground, that distorts the total as well and could provide a false positive in progression. Although Louisville currently fields the 32nd ranked rushing offense in the country the Cards are actually 13th nationally in rushing attempts, translating to a more realistic number of 44th in the country in yards/att. For an offense that relies on the ground game so much, you would like to see that number much higher. So why isn’t it?
‘Football Outsiders’ grades offensive line play on multiple levels, and the Cards overall production/ranking doesn’t necessarily reflect that of a Top 35 rushing offense, which leads me to believe that those numbers are somewhat inflated due to Satterfield’s unwavering concentration on establishing the run, and then hoping to maintain it throughout the game. The category ‘Standard Down Line Yards per Carry’ sounds confusing but in general it measures the production from the offensive line in standard down situations (1st and 10, 2nd and 7 or less, 3rd and 4 or less, etc). In those situations, Louisville is only getting 2.31yd/att on the ground placing them at 95th nationally. Barely cracking the Top 100 on standard downs doesn’t get put on the ‘Band Of Brothers’ promotional material and something I’m sure Coach Ledford would love to see improve. Another statistical measure is the ability for the line to create push up front. ‘FO’ tracked how often a team in a 3rd or 4th down situation with two yards or less to the line to gain converted for a first down or scored. Louisville is only converting on those plays 66.7% of the time, landing them at 81st in the country, another sign pointing to the fact that Louisville isn’t really winning the battles up front as often as you’d like to see. The third category I wanted to highlight is ‘Stuff Rate’ or rate at which the runner does not pass the line of scrimmage. Louisville has a remarkably high stuff rate (21.4%) for a team that looks to run the ball so consistently. That ranking (102nd) in combination with their sack rate (12.6%, 124th) means that Louisville is in the bottom 25% of all teams in producing a positive yardage run and/or allowing their quarterback to take a sack. That ain’t great folks. So why are they still putting up numbers in the run game…
“The running backs are killing it this year…”
Facts. We knew Hassan Hall and Javian Hawkins were going to get fed this year, but no one was sure just how well they would ‘eat’ in the new look offense behind an unproven O-line. Four games in and there is no comparison to 2018. Louisville finished the entire season last year with 1,082 rushing yards from the running backs room. Four games into 2019 they already have 650 yards, or 60% of last year’s total. As we all know, they are obviously getting more attempts this year than last, but the tale of the tape is what they are doing with each opportunity. Hall and Hawkins combined have increased their yards per attempt average this season by over 2.5 yards. Hawkins 5.91yd/att is currently better than AJ Dillon, Cam Akers, and Moe Neal within the conference, just to name a few.
They are two completely different players than what we saw from them last season. While it’s always hard to split running back attributes and O-line play another measurable for an athletic back is the ability to create a big play. Can they bust that 10-20 yard run with consistency? So far, they have answered that call as well. Louisville has 27 runs of ten yards or more (17th), 8 runs of 20 yards or more (28th), 5 runs of 30 yards or more (12th), 3 runs of 40 yards or more (11th), and 2 runs for over 50 yards (12th). They are making big time plays in space, and these numbers don’t include the Tutu jet sweeps (those are passing plays). But are they getting help in the air…
“The passing attack is tough to watch this year…”
Yep. A 55.9% completion percentage bundled with a shade over 200 yards passing per game is not going to cut it in ACC play. As I just referenced above some of these stats are even inflated with the jet sweep numbers from Tutu which have added significant passing yardage and a few passing touchdowns. You know, I know, Satterfield knows, and most importantly every QB on the team knows, they need more from that position to win games this year. Pass needs to work on his accuracy, Malik his consistency, and while we saw a few nice things from Conley I’m not about to make a definitive statement on a guy who has less D-I throws than I have fingers on one hand. For 2018, one of these guys will have to step up if the Cards are looking to get a couple ACC wins under their belt.
While my love for statistics is greater than the average bear, I will readily admit that numbers cannot always tell the whole story. I know that sacks can’t always be pinned on the offensive line, runs for loss or no gain can fall at the feet of the running backs as well, long runs aren’t always due to the elusiveness of the running back alone, and passing struggles aren’t 100% attributed to the quarterback, but overall the numbers can tell a story. The passing game needs help, the backs are currently carrying the offense, and the line still has a lot of work to do to get back to what outsiders would even consider average in terms of production. To me it’s encouraging that the team is having success on the ground and on that side of the football in general, even with some of the deficiencies we are seeing. Satterfield took on the challenge of flipping a house that was a complete mess, and a few months in we are still seeing the clean up stages of that work, removing the old shag carpet and patching the holes in the walls. It may not be beautiful right now in all areas, but I can envision the finished product in my head and it seems like we’re making the changes necessary to get us there.