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How Conservative Play Calling is Holding Back Louisville’s Offense

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Probably shouldn’t run it on 2nd-and-long

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 09 Virginia at Louisville Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There’s an old saying in sports that’s been ringing in my head ever since the final whistle blew last Saturday at Cardinal Stadium: “Great teams find a way to win. Bad teams find a way to lose.”

That harrowing quote has never resonated with me more than it has now after seeing the way this team blew the game against Virginia. I had the same thought as Louisville let a bad Florida State team nearly come back and win if it weren’t for a game-winning interception from Tre Clark.

But the thing that doesn’t sit right with me is that I truly do not believe that this team is bad. This team is only a few calls from the refs and coaches away from being 5-1 on the season and sniffing a Top-25 ranking.

What’s been bad has been the play calling. And while Bryan Brown’s three-man-rush philosophy needs to be addressed, I’d like to save that for another time. Instead, today I’d like to focus on the inexplicable play calling that continues to hold back what’s statistically a very good offense.

Let’s start by confirming that this offense is actually very good. According to Bill Connelly’s SP+, Louisville’s offense ranks 13th in the country, Football Outsiders F+ ratings has them 27th overall, and they rank 24th in total yards per game after having played only one team outside of SP+’s Top 55 (EKU). They’re good.

What’s been baffling to see is how conservative the play calling gets, especially after building a comfortable lead. Sure, it should be enough that if the offense scores 30+ points that the defense should be able to make sure that’s enough to win. However, with the defense once again proving itself as a liability the offense doesn’t have the luxury of shutting things down. If you can keep your foot on the gas with this offense (and with this defense), then do it.

The FSU near-comeback was a friendly warning. But it was clear that the coaching staff missed this warning as they allowed Virginia to climb back into a game that should have been a comfortable win, just as FSU had, only this time UVA finished the job.

One of the biggest pieces of conservative play calling that fans have noticed throughout the Satterfield era and has continued to be a gripe has been Satterfield’s tendency to run the ball on 2-and-long. Sure, we notice it. But just how bad is it really?

Hoooboy, I found out for y’all.

So far this season Satterfield has called a running play on 2-and-long (7+ yards) 43 times.

Of those 43 running attempts, the average distance to gain a first down has been 9.8 yards with an average gain of 3.8 yards. Which means that usually when Louisville runs the ball on second down, you’re probably looking at 3rd and 6. Not great.

But wait! There’s more! Of the 43 2nd-and-long rushing attempts, 14 (FOURTEEN!) have resulted in three-and-outs. Not just stalled drives. THREE-AND-OUTS. In fact, those 14 three-and-outs account for 14 of the 19 three-and-outs the team has had this season.

Even on drives that don’t end in three-and-outs, running the ball on 2nd-and-long have led to the offense punting or turning the ball over on downs on 23 different times.

When your weird commitment to running the ball on 2nd-and-long has you averaging a three-and-out 33% of the time, are the basis for 74% of your three-and-outs, and give you a 53% chance of your drive stalling immediately after, then you just have to stop doing it. Don’t tweak it. Completely drop it from your offense.

And this isn’t even something that’s unique to Louisville. It’s common knowledge that running on 2nd-and-long is one of the worst things you can do when calling an offense. Here’s NFL data that Football Outsiders gathered from 2009-2017.

Ben Baldwin, FootballOutsiders.com

I know, college football isn’t the same, but this still illustrates just how boneheaded it is for coaches to continue to do this when we have stats that explicitly suggest the opposite.

What frustrates me most about this is that the data shows you really shouldn’t be running the ball much on second-down unless it’s 2nd-and-3 or shorter. If you don’t have a quarterback that can get you to 2nd-and-3 or shorter, then maybe you can push back on the idea and say we just have to run the hell out of the ball and try to get 3rd-and-manageable. But that’s not the situation Louisville’s in as Micale Cunningham has been outstanding this season and is more than capable of getting Louisville into 3rd-and-manageable with his arm or undesigned scrambles.

This segues well into my next point that Satterfield simply doesn’t trust Cunningham and the offense to put games away themselves.

In fact, Jared Lee (@JaredDLee) of cfbscrapR and UteZone.com was able to put together a comprehensive ranking of which teams have hurt their win probability the most by kicking in situations where they really should go for it. You’ll be shocked to find that Louisville ranks 4th worst among all P5 teams.

@JaredDLee

A great illustration of this came on Saturday when Louisville was facing 4th-and-5 on the Virginia 22-yard-line while up 3 points. If Louisville goes for it in this situation, with a 45% chance that it will work, and they convert, then they increase their chance of winning to 95%. But if they kick it, which we know they do, then you have an 84% chance of winning. And either way if you fail to convert or miss the field goal, you still have a 78% chance of winning the game. Translation: GO FOR IT.

(Fun fact: the 4th down was a result of running the ball on 2nd-and-9)

We know how it all ends after they make the field goal. I sure would have liked to find out what would have happened had they not run the ball on the previous second-down and if they had gone for the first-down conversion instead.

All of this is really just my nerdy and longwinded way of saying, Scott, for the love of all things good and holy, stop running the ball on 2nd-and-long and put some faith into your veteran quarterback.