We’re very fortunate to have the SB Nation network of team sites to work with during game weeks. This week’s edition features a chat with Keith Wynne, contributor over at Card Chronicle, SBN’s Louisville blog. We discuss disappointing starts, a somehow-improved Lamar Jackson, and a faltering defense.
TN: The Cardinals currently sit at 4-3 on the year and rank 24th in the country by S&P+. What were your expectations for the team entering the year, and what are they for the balance of 2017?
CC: My expectations were a 9-3 or 8-4 year. I was lower on them than others mostly because I didn't have high hopes for the defense after the switch at defensive coordinator. How last season ended also factored in. Louisville trailed Wake Forest in the fourth quarter before putting them away, then followed that up with 3 straight embarrassing losses. The team looked uninterested and unmotivated. I didn't expect those things to go away and it looks like they haven't.
At this point I don't have a lot of confidence that Louisville can win out or even win multiple games. Boston College was the worst team left on the schedule and they took a loss at home. That tends to make one think that things won't go much better to close the season.
TN: The Louisville offense checks in at 9th in America by S&P+, and it appears as though Lamar Jackson has only improved. Which position groups have earned high marks for you so far this year on offense? Which need to improve?
CC: This is a tough one because running back has been a very strong position for Louisville but Bobby Petrino has abandoned the run in most games this year. Louisville is 1st in opportunity rate so the blocking is there, but he just hasn't committed to it for whatever reason. Malik Williams was averaging 7 ypc before he went down with an injury. Converted wide receiver Reggie Bonnafon showed last week that he can run between the tackles and break a big run, aslo. This group has been consistent and they haven't made many mistakes. They just aren't utilized. The receivers would be a close second with Dez Fitzpatrick having a breakout year.
The group that needs to improve is probably the offensive line. The line was flat out awful last year and they have really improved so far this season but there's still a long way to go. They have really struggled to block on short yardage runs and the pass blocking is very inconsistent. Speed rushers have been able to get around the edge and bull rushes have worked against the interior.
TN: How do you expect the Cardinals to attack the Seminole defense? Will it be more of the same (admittedly, very successful) plan from a year ago?
CC: The offense this year has been very odd to be blunt. Louisville is one of the best teams in the country at running the ball on first down, but they have one of the lowest rates of first down runs. They don't use Lamar Jackson in the run game like they did last year, either. The inverted veer and other zone read types of runs are few and far between. I felt like that was what really helped them against FSU last year. They were balanced and they could beat you in a handful of different ways. This year they've mostly been some kind of Air Raid wannabe. They throw the ball more than Texas Tech to give you some context. They just don't do the things they did against FSU anymore.
I'd expect Louisville to come out throwing. They might try to get Lamar on the move some to help the offensive line. Louisville has been heavy on slants and crossing routes in the passing game. It feels like they run mesh a couple of times each drive. When they push the ball down the field it's usually down the middle in some fashion. They'll run post routes or throw it down the seam to slot guys. They don't throw it down the sideline very much but they've tried it with some success over the last two games. When they do run the ball they will mix zone reads with a good amount of stretch runs. They like to get Bonnafon outside and use his speed.
TN: On the flip side, the UL defense currently sits at 76th in the country. Did you see this kind of regression coming in 2017? What do you think the major causes have been?
CC: Louisville's defense is the worst it's been since they were a 4 or 5 win a year program under Steve Kragthorpe. When they hired Peter Sirmon away from Mississippi State it was a bad sign. His defense was terrible last year so there was no reason to think it would be any different here. I watched every available snap of his defense to get a feel for his scheme and came away baffled why they would bring that here.
Sirmon runs a very vanilla 4-2-5 that aligns as so on almost every play. You're going to see 3 down linemen with a rush end standing up. Two linebackers will be 5 yards off the ball like statues. A "star" will cover the slot or just play in space. Corners are typically off the ball and bail at the snap. Safeties are typically two high with one dropping into a middle zone at times. It's very basic and they don't stray too far away from the base defense.
The biggest issue with the defense is the lack of pressure. They don't blitz much and the defense ends don't get home enough not to blitz. I also think that the lack of pressure and the vanilla scheme leads to guys loafing. Guys just don't run to the ball well enough and that leads to missed one-on-one tackles. If anyone remembers Dalvin Cook's run from two years ago where Louisville's defense had a bunch of guys just expecting the other guy make the play, it's kind of like that all of the time now.
TN: Which match-ups with the FSU offense concern you? How do you think the Louisville defense will try to defend them?
CC: I'm really concerned with Cam Akers after Louisville gave up 272 yards to AJ Dillon last week. Akers' blend of power running and speed are exactly what Louisville doesn't need to see. My hope is that Louisville adjusts and stacks the box. James Blackman can throw the ball down the field very well but you have to pick your poison. I'd rather them make FSU's line protect Blackman than let Cam run wild.
Auden Tate is another guy that worries me. His size will create problems for Louisville's smaller corners. Jaire Alexander is great in coverage but he's only 5-11 and true freshman Russ Yeast is the same. They haven't had any success stopping the pass this year and 10 different players have had their longest catch of the season against this secondary. Tate seems to be the most reliable guy for FSU when he's healthy and I think they'll hunt for some throws down the field to him.
TN: How have the UL special teams fared to date?
CC: Special teams are a mixed bag. Blanton Creque hasn't missed a kick yet this year and it looks like he's added to his range a bit. Mason King is a solid punter. He has good hangtime and doesn't allow a lot of returns. The issues are in the return game. Alexander hasn't returned punts yet since he returned from a knee injury. They have had a couple of nice returns but nothing consistent. The kick returners have been flat out bad. Louisville is 127th in field position on offense and it causes some real issues when the offense is so inconsistent. They go 3 and out and now the defense is defending a shorter field. Petrino has mentioned multiple times that they have to improve there.
I'm personally concerned with Keith Gavin (if he's healthy) and Derwin James returning kicks. UNC took one back on them and they've allowed a few decent sized returns in other games.
TN: Finally, let's get a prediction. The Seminoles opened as touchdown favorites, but the spread has shifted in Louisville's direction. Will the Cardinals follow up last year's domination with a road win in Tallahassee?
CC: Nah. I think it will be fairly close because Lamar Jackson can do Lamar Jackson things but I don't have any confidence in this team right now. I think Petrino has lost his team. The defense is starting true freshmen at linebacker, corner, and safety. Seniors are already losing snaps to younger guys. I think that last year was a fluke game from FSU. They didn't play that poorly in any other game (USF was kinda weird though). Louisville also didn't get up for any other game like they did for FSU. It literally looked like a different team.
FSU is improving on offense and I think they finally get things straightened out against a really bad Louisville defense. Lamar and the offense haven't been able to do enough to overcome the defense and their own issues so far and I don't see that changing against a pissed off FSU team at home.
Big thanks to Keith for his time and insight! Be sure to head over to Card Chronicle for all your Louisville coverage. Our answers to their questions will be up shortly.