If you were to poll the average Louisville football fan, or you hopped on twitter for more than five seconds during a game this season, the general consensus seemed to be that the offense, which was returning the bulk of its playmakers from 2019, was not playing up to their potential and in general terms were very underwhelming on a week to week basis. But what if the eye test was a liar, and the offense performed well outside of one major area? Let’s see if the offensive numbers can hold up under some intense scrutiny from yours truly in Part 2 of the 2020 Season Recap.
Now, before we get too deep into the weeds I think it’s important and fair to point out two very big elephants in the room…
First, comparing raw numbers from last year to this year is not a fair assessment as the 2020 team only got to play in eleven regular season games (one non-conf), compared to the thirteen we saw from the 2019 squad (2 non-conf outside the Power 5). Those two “extra games” this season would have likely been against a Group of 5 team or a mid-tier opponent that would have allowed the 2020 team to rack up a bit more yardage, pad their points per game totals, and improve their overall averages from an efficiency standpoint. In fact, the last four seasons when UofL has played four non-conference opponents they are averaging 2.5 wins per year, so in addition to the yardage, points, etc you could have likely added a notch to the win column as well. The second item of note is that along with the normal wear and tear of a season the 2020 team was also forced to sit players out who were not physically injured but out of precaution due a global pandemic…tough to see that show up on a stat line. So, with those two things in mind my focus must shift to season averages so we can come as close as possible to comparing apples to apples, or Cards to Cards if you will.
Let’s look at the big numbers right out of the gate. I was surprised to see that the 2020 squad put up numbers that were only 3.1yds/g (0.6%) lower than last years totals when it came to total yardage. With all the caveats mentioned above this team was nearly identical in offensive production that we saw last season. We did see a shift in the run/pass split but that was likely due to the Cards playing from behind more in 2020 and being forced to pass the ball a bit more than Satterfield would have liked. The points per game differential (3.6pt/g) was much closer than many may have anticipated as well, but as I touched on in my previous post, it was enough separation to create an impact, in my opinion, when it came to getting wins in close contests.
So if the overall yardage was nearly identical and the point differential (-10.9%) not substantial enough to convince us that it was the cause for the inversion of results in the win-loss column, what else could it be? (Insert beaten dead horse) We can see from the chart below that the Cards were averaging almost a full additional turnover per game this season (0.72), hovering slightly over two turnovers per contest. Now stay with me here. When you factor that into a reduction in turnovers forced by the defense the turnover margin actually did increase by an entire turnover (-0.08 vs. -1.09) per game. Meaning that the Cards offense was handing the ball over to their opponents, giving them an extra possession, one additional time EVERY SINGLE GAME in 2020. That is a huge shift in those numbers year over year.
As we investigate further, we see in contrast to the large differential in turnovers that the offensive line and the “escapability” of Cunningham which was drawn into question multiple times this year actually performed better in numerous statistical categories. Less sacks allowed (overall & per game) as well as less TFL (overall & per game) even with the 2020 Cards passing the ball five more times each game.
So as I continued to dig into the offense the alarm in my head is going off, saying surely we can’t continue to focus on a single point of data (turnovers) as the independent factor for determining wins and losses. Surely many other areas must come into play. So lets look at how the teams compared in “crunch time” or when their backs were against the wall so to speak. When it came to 3rd Down success rate the difference from last season to this season was nearly negligible at 44% to 45% on about 30 less attempts in 2020. The 4th Down rate was a wider margin but the Cards surprisingly attempted more 4th down conversions this year in two less games, often due to trailing late in the game. The actual numbers of successful conversions was the same (13) but the larger number of attempts shifted the conversion percentage. If you feel so inclined one could also consider these additional failed 4th down conversions turnovers as well, meaning the margin above actually increases even more. And for those of you thinking maybe the red herring in all this is that the Cards struggled in the redzone, putting points on the board….nope. They were actually better this year than last overall and only had one less TD than in 2019 on the same number of RZ attempts (44).
One last area that often gets overlooked are the big plays. If you can gash someone for 40-50 yards that often doesn’t show up in first down conversion totals or time of possession, or even seeing the defense getting gassed and being a step slow on the next play. So how did the 2020 squad do compared to the 2019 team that always seemed to have a 20-30 yard banger in their back pocket? As you may expect by now, damn near the exact same. In fact on a per game basis the 2020 team actually performed better on plays of ten yards or more (15.38/g vs 17.55/g) and 70 yards or more, and went nose to nose in the other categories as well.
While I understand that my level of investigation isn’t going to impress Bill Connelly or the folks over at ESPN Insider we can say that from a high level the offensive numbers all come out of the wash looking fairly similar, expect for the one category which shall not be mentioned. I watched every game this year, most of them two or three times and my eyes saw the same thing as many of you. The offense just didn’t look as fluid, the play calling was frustrating, the playmakers weren’t making as many plays….but the numbers really do say different. If you were satisfied with what we saw in 2019 from Satterfield and the offense it would be tough to argue that that they underperformed in 2020. Maybe our expectations were too high, maybe there is an underlying issues I’ve missed, but frankly this offense did enough on the field to win more games than we saw....if they could hold onto the ball.