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‘Take Your Time, There’s Really No Rush’

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

Anytime I sit down to write a recap post or something focusing on a very specific topic I always try and let the dust settle to avoid injecting my own recency bias into the equation. I probably could have jotted down three to four pages worth of opinions on the topic of the Louisville defense Saturday night as I was at a peek level of frustration; but now that a few days have passed I’ve tried to cut the fat and look to bring you just some key observations halfway through the year. Warning, it’s still a lot.

Coming into this season during ‘The Cardinal Countdown’ I was the poster child for the group of fans who looked at our personnel, looked at the depth, looked at the transfers, and thought…this defense could be legit. When you looked in the trenches you had a combination of returning talent, what appeared to be a true nose tackle, and some incoming bodies that were showing they could make some noise early. At the second level it was a similar analysis with top talent returning in Avery, Abdullah, and Monty and a position change for Fagot which made a ton of sense on paper. In the secondary they had an All-ACC caliber player along with a proven support system and the transfers and freshman at safety were almost a lock to help shore up some of the deficiencies in that area. It wasn’t a “can’t miss” situation, but it certainly looked like more of an open fifteen foot jumper than a half court heave. Six games into the year, as much as I want it to be true, this defense is just not performing at the level they should be or a level that can consistently win football games. Something has to change.

Before we get into the “stop rushing 3 guys” conversation, don’t worry, we’ll get there, I think we need to look at some overall numbers for this unit. The conversation since the arrival of Satterfield and Coach Brown is that we need to be patient. A change to the defensive philosophy from a previous staff is never easy but a complete scheme change back to a 3-4 base will take time to get the right players in place. Year three I see a two deep riddled with recruits from the new staff or top performers from the previous regime, so we should see some trendlines moving upwards, correct? I pulled in the last true season with Petrino (’17) to help see a trend as we know ’18 was a mess overall, and then the two plus seasons under Satterfield. Let’s take a look.

Looking over this chart what we would hope to see are trends moving downward, or in other words, less yardage or points being racked up by the opposing offenses. Instead, what we see is that in three of the four major categories they are moving in the wrong direction. Before we dig in too deep lets look at those same categories in terms of national rankings (out of 130 teams).

Once again, we see some pretty dramatic movements in the wrong direction in three of four areas. Overall (total defense) the Cards are giving up more yardage per game than any season in that last four years outside of 2018, and a big factor in that is the inability to stop the pass. The Cards are a sniff under 300 yards per game in that area, easily the worst in the last four seasons and nothing in the last twelve seasons (as far back as my data goes) has come close to that number either. In fairness, the drop looks even more substantial because of their performance in 2020, but the Top 20 ranking was more a reflection of teams knowing they could run the ball with greater ease and attacking Louisville on the ground. That has been completely flipped on its head in 2021. While watching games back this season I don't think it all falls on the staff as I’ve seen some obvious out of position plays, some blown coverage plays, and even some looks of pure confusion from the players on the field. Coaching can help, but we still need to see better execution at times of the plays being called. While it’s a mixed bag, as noted above, the majority of the damage is coming through the air.

Through six games teams are slicing Louisville up for not only short yardage gains, but big plays out of the passing game as well. Louisville currently sits at 125th nationally (out of 130) in giving up passing plays of 10 or more yards (72), and they actually rank worse (127th) in passing plays of 20 or more yards (31). Anyone who watches the games likely is not surprised by this number, but it’s obvious the “play it safe” approach is not working. While the Cards are somewhat respectable on stopping 3rd downs overall (37.21%) landing at 61st nationally, they are not great on 4th downs (63.6%) whatsoever. So with my attention shifted to 3rd and fourth down play and trying to get off the field, lets look at the elephant in the room in those situations….defensive play calling.

While a fans perspective is always worse than reality there are some troubling numbers in the next chart I’m going to show you. The casual fan will tell you “rushing 3 never works” and “rushing 5 or more always works” and while statistically that is not true, it’s pretty dang close in this example. I’m not sure who is on the ‘Mount Rushmore than 3 dudes’…but it sure ain’t Brian Brown, and it’s driving people crazy. Lets look at some numbers from the Virginia game I compiled based upon the final game report and rewatching the game a couple times. It was a labor love for sure (I’ll note that I break it down further later in the post if you want to skip the raw data for now. Also “success” refers to a successful conversion, not a good thing for Louisville).

For those who find this much data a bit tough to digest let me break it down into subcategories I feel are relevant. First, lets look at all 3rd/4th down situations in which the Cards only rushed 3 players and see how that worked out for the defense.

In the Virginia game this situation happened five times, and not only did they convert on four of them (80%) they gave up an average of 16.4yd/play. Gross. What makes it even more difficult to swallow, if that’s possible, is that on long yardage situations of 7+ yards to gain, Virginia went 3-3 on the game. Every time they had a 3rd/4th and long, and Louisville only rushed three, they were successful in getting the first down. So what if we up the ante so to speak and start to bring more pressure? The guy in the parking lot after the game says it works, but does it really?

The short answer is, yes. When the Cards brought more and more pressure the Virginia offense, statically speaking, was significantly less successful for each additional player rushing the backfield. The half drunk guy yelling for more pressure, at least in this game, was 100% correct. In fact, every time Louisville “brought the house” (rushing 6 or more) they stopped Virginia 84% of the time, and the one successful attempt they had was only a seven yard gain. That leads me to my next point, which is not only focusing on first down conversions, but giving up big yardage plays. Against Virginia in 3rd/4th down situations, nine times Louisville gave up a play of ten or more yards. Every single one of those plays except for two Louisville only brought 3 or 4 guys on the rush, and one of the times they brought 5 the UVA receiver made a great “tip of the cap” type catch which most reasonable fans can accept in those scenarios, but they just didn’t attempt to bring more heat often enough.

So while frustrating to watch this madness the whole game, the spotlight intensifies in the fourth quarter when we go into full clench mode. So lets look at those numbers specifically to see if things are any different.

Not so much. There were eight 3rd or 4th down opportunities for Virginia last Saturday in the 4th quarter and they converted on five of them for a 62.5% success rate. While not ideal even at that percentage, the nail in the coffin was that two of the stops for Louisville that came on 3rd down plays, were then subsequently converted on the next play during the 4th down attempt (and both times they only rushed 3), meaning they only stopped one drive the entire fourth quarter. So what the heck does all this mean? A combination of poor execution and poor play calling has the Louisville defense looking like a shell of what many expected to see. I still believe in the guys we have out there, but if we continue to play it safe, I believe we’ll be “safely” watching postseason football at home once again in 2021.

TL;DR

Defensively Louisville is regressing from what we saw last year in total yardage, passing yardage, and points allowed.

Louisville is one of the worst passing defenses in the country at 122nd nationally (bottom 10%) and one of the worst defenses in overall yardage allowed at 112th (449.3yds/g).

For the Virginia game, rushing only 3 players in drive stopping situations on 3rd or 4th down resulted in an 80% conversion rate for the UVA offense.

For the Virginia game, rushing only 3 players in drive stopping situations on 3rd or 4th down in long yardage situations (+7yds) resulted in a 100% conversion rate for the UVA offense.

For the Virginia game, rushing only 3 players in drive stopping situations on 3rd or 4th down resulted in an average gain of 16.4yd/p for the UVA offense.

For the Virginia game, rushing 6 or more players in drive stopping situations on 3rd or 4th down resulted in only a 16.6% success rate for the UVA offense.

For the Virginia game, rushing 6 or more players in drive stopping situations on 3rd or 4th down in long yardage situations (+7yds) resulted in a 0% conversion rate for the UVA offense.

For the Virginia game, rushing 6 or more players in drive stopping situations on 3rd or 4th down resulted in an average gain of -.6yd/p for the UVA offense.

For the Virginia game, in the 4th Quarter, Louisville only stopped one drive even though putting themselves in a position to get off the field with a stop six separate times. In four of those six opportunities they only rushed the passer with 3 or 4 players.

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