Louisville entered the 2020 season with high hopes but the start of the first game should have told us all that something wasn’t quite right. It started with a penalty on the first play of the game and the first drive ended with Logan Lupo dropping his first snap on a punt attempt and Louisville’s defense had to try to stop a touchdown from the 1-yard line. While the turnovers cast a dark cloud on the program last season, the lack of favorable field position is what caused a perfect storm.
The Louisville football team played at a disadvantage last year that was created completely by themselves. On average, they started offensive drives over seven yards further back on the field than their opposition. That may not seem like a lot but it’s essentially an extra first down that UofL had to come up with. The real issue is that the defense is set up to defend a short field which made it really hard for them to keep points off the board.
The Cards forced 17 field goals last season which is pretty impressive with the opposition having an average starting position of the 33-yard line. The defense started most drives in a bad spot and they were forced to make the best of it. While they could have been better, they finished the season in solid shape all things considered.
Two factors played a major role in opposing offenses having such good field positions. Turnovers obviously didn’t help but poor punting was a big factor as well. UofL finished last year ranked 113th in punting average. They also only put 12 total punts inside the opposing 20-yard line. Not the 10-yard line, the 20. They were one of the worst punting teams in the country and it was compounded by an offense that turned the ball over too often.
To put some of these numbers in context, Louisville hasn’t been this bad at punting the football since Charlie Strong’s first two seasons. They won 14 games in those two years, in part, because they didn’t also hurt themselves with turnovers. We’ve talked before about how UofL overcame turnovers during Petrino’s second tenure but this program has never had both issues concurrently like they did last season.
When you flip things to the other side of the ball it’s just as bad. Louisville’s average starting field position was the 26-yard line. That’s one yard better than where the rules just give you the ball. This is mostly due to a horrendous return game. The Cards averaged under 20 yards per kickoff return and their punt return average was good for 115th in the country. The offense got absolutely no help from the special teams.
We can also address the defense’s role in this as well. They didn’t force enough turnovers given the opportunities to do so. They weren’t as bad as they were portrayed to be by some as they finished 68th in the country in takeaways. The issue is that they probably could have finished in the top 25 if they hadn’t dropped so many interceptions.
There is no way that Louisville can expect to have the type of offensive performance the fans would expect if they’re starting every drive 75 yards away from the endzone. I don’t care if you have a big play offense or a methodical approach, the best thing an opposing defense can hope for is poor field position and Louisville was very poor when it came to offensive field position.
The numbers (provided by @mcmahonjust) tell the story pretty clearly. Louisville has won games when they have good field position on offense and don’t put the defense at a disadvantage. The question, of course, is how do they fix this.
Louisville addressed the punting situation by bringing in a big Australian punter which is the new trend in college football. Prokick Australia has trained 6 of the last 7 Ray Guy Award winners and Mark Vassett comes from their program. Scott Satterfield has raved about his hang time as well as how much yardage he is getting on his punts.
It has been said that Hassan Hall is back to his 2019 form after being injured last year. UofL went from 5th to 67th in kickoff return average from 2019 to 2020. We could see the offense get some real help from the special teams unit just like the punting improvement would help the defense.
As it pertains to the Ole Miss game, the inspiration for this post came a few weeks back when I watched their game against LSU from last season. LSU’s offense kept stalling out around midfield. Then their punter would boom a punt down inside the 10-yard line and LSU’s defense had a much better chance of slowing down a very good Ole Miss offense.
It reminded me that we just didn’t see the punting unit put the defense in a good spot which then turned into a good defensive drive which then turns into great field position for the offense. It’s old-school football but it’s winning football. We’ve all heard coaches talk about winning all three phases of the game or being “sound” in the kicking game. Louisville has to put that at the forefront of the improvements we see this year as It can really help this team win the close games they lost last season.