We’re very fortunate to have the SB Nation network of team sites to work with during game weeks. This week’s edition of our Opponent Q&A series features a chat with Card Chronicle, SBN’s Louisville blog. I sat down with CardinalStrong to discuss dashed expectations, replacing Lamar Jackson, and our old friend Uncle Rico.
TN: The Cardinals entered 2018 coming off of an 8-5 season and looking to replace a legend at quarterback. What were your expectations for this Louisville team entering the season, and what are they now?
CC: In the summer I had Louisville pegged as an 8-4 team during the regular season. I chalked the games against Alabama and Clemson up as two losses and figured the group of FSU/NC State/BC/Georgia Tech in one way or another would hand them the other two. The offense took a hit in losing Lamar but the majority of the other players along the line, in the wide receivers room, and a stable of backs would all return. Jawon ‘Puma’ Pass was a highly touted QB who picked the Cards over Alabama and Auburn and was groomed in the system for two years with Petrino even alluding to the fact that the playbook would likely shift back toward what Louisville fans saw in his first stint at the University with a more upright pocket passer who could make the timing throws and read his progressions rather than take off if option 1 or 2 wasn’t there. The defense was upgraded with an addition by subtraction firing DC Peter Sirmon after one very miserable season on that side of the ball. Most fans knew this wasn’t a ‘compete for an ACC crown’ type season but anticipated a solid product who just needed some more experience to close out the tight ballgames. We were wrong.
I hate to make a blanket statement only four games into the year but I’m gonna go anti-Denny Green and say “They AREN’T who we thought they were”. With 25% of the season already in the books the Cards are fielding one of the worst offenses in the country and a defense that has just now slowly crept up into the ‘average team’ range after a couple rough showings early on. It’s not hyperbole to say this team may not win another game. In fact, Bill Connelly’s S&P has them finishing at 3-9 with their only remaining victory coming over Wake Forest…barely. Expectations moving forward are beyond low for me. Until they prove they can move the ball with any consistency we may have already seen the last Cardinal victory of the season, two weeks ago.
TN: Obviously, replacing Lamar Jackson was going to be the media focus for Louisville this year, particularly early. How’s that been going with Malik Cunningham and Jawon Pass? What does each bring to the table, and who do you hope/expect to see more of this Saturday?
CC: I think what fans are coming to realize now (myself included) is that the once in a generation talent of Lamar Jackson was able to put a lot of band-aids on areas that are now gaping wounds. Jawon Pass stepped onto the field against one of the best defenses in the country Week 1 and he held his own. He had a couple mistakes, as most first time starters do, but he finished with a 252yd/2TD/2INT game on 20 of 39 attempts. It wasn’t spectacular but the mindset quickly shifted to “if he can drop 250 and 2 touchdowns on Alabama surely he can carve up the nonconference and most of the lower tier ACC schools”. Then…he didn’t.
The Cards played in the aftermath of Hurricane Francis in Week 2 against Indiana State and surprise, surprise, 30 mile an hour winds and driving rains aren’t conducive to the pass game. Pass struggled and Petrino saw it as an opportunity to introduce Malik Cunningham, the dual threat RS Freshman who came to Louisville looking to follow in the path of Lamar Jackson. Malik played well using both his arm and his legs to make plays and generate some offense. So do you bail on the heir apparent after one game? Of course not. The following week against Western Kentucky both QB’s got some time but Pass got a quick hook after a tough start and Malik was once again the better looking player when the clock struck zero, doing enough to get the win but not looking incredible by any measure. Last week, to avoid beating around the bush, they both looked like garbage. No rhythm, no timing, no help from the wideouts, no help from the backs, and certainly no help from the O-line. So here we sit Week 5 with no definitive QB and Petrino has admitted he doesn’t know what to do. Go back to Pass who has the arm to make the throws but struggles with accuracy and lacks time and help from the backs OR go with Malik who can make plays in space but doesn’t have the arm, doesn’t know the progressions yet and puts your offense in a tough spot of being fairly one dimensional. I think he goes back with Jawon on Saturday, lets him take some lumps but tries to build his confidence back up. It could be rough but personally I think they’ll need him going forward to have any shot at winning games. As a side note, true Freshman Jordan Travis is not off the table, and the new redshirt rule would allow him to see some decent time without losing eligibility. Don’t be surprised if he takes a few snaps this week.
TN: How do you expect Bobby Petrino and this UL offense to attack Florida State’s defense? If they’re going to move the ball, how will they do it?
CC: If, and that’s a big if, they can get the offense going I think it will have to be through the air. FSU has a pretty stout front that is currently allowing under 100yd/g on the ground and since Louisville doesn’t have a back that is a clear number one I can’t envision their running back by committee approach generating significant production. With that said, the backs have to get “something” going to help Pass or Cunnigham or Travis or whoever the heck Bobby wants to throw back there. In their two games against Power 5 opponents UofL didn’t crack 70yd on the ground in either contest. That lack of ground attack allowed the defense to drop back, play some nickel and dime coverages, still get plenty of pressure only rushing three or four, and forced numerous poor throws. Translation: 2 interceptions against Alabama and 2 interceptions against Virginia. If [insert QB name here] can complete some quick throws, keep the secondary honest, and maybe, just maybe hit a deep ball or two (Cards are 100th nationally in plays of 10yds or more) the backs can get some space and speedsters like Hassan Hall and Tutu Atwell can turn a bubble screen or jet sweep into a big play.
TN: The Cardinals made an interesting hire at defensive coordinator in Uncle Rico himself, Brian VanGorder. What have you seen from him so far schematically? Who are his standout players on D?
CC: If you poll the fan base, UofL could have gone out and Hired Brian Fellows much less Brian VanGorder and the overwhelming majority of folks would have viewed it as an upgrade. In 2017 Louisville basically did a DC trade with Mississippi State swapping Todd Grantham for a very unproven Peter Sirmon. Many were skeptical of the hire but trusted Petrino knew what he was doing [narrator voice] ‘He did not know what he was doing’. Sirmon wasn’t a bad hire, he was an abysmal hire. The defense tanked in pretty much every statistical category last year and not only did they look bad on paper they were boring to watch. With VanGorder the selling point was “aggression” and we all bought in quick. Wait, a DC that actually blitzes?!? A DC that isn’t afraid to stack the box or play some man coverage on occasion?!? It was like Christmas.
The good news is that Santa brought what we were promised. There is no denying BVG is more aggressive than Sirmon and without a doubt calls more exotic defenses than Sirmon ever dreamed of playing. The bad news…the results so far are pretty much the same. The Cards Blitz Down success rate on defense per Bill Connelly is 101st in the country. Their blitz down sack rate on defense is 89th in the country, and their havoc rate (% of plays in which you get a sack/TFL/INT/PBD) is 6.2%, placing them in the bottom 30 of all Division-I teams. You ever been to a baseball game, where the conditions are perfect, you’re enjoying the sights and sounds, you’re team is winning, and nothing in the world is better than biting into a nice big hotdog? Now imagine instead of a ballpark hotdog you have a 2 week old Oscar Meyer that you microwaved for way too long in the break room kitchen. They may look different, they may taste different but at the end of the day it’s still pig snouts and pig butts. Things on the surface appear to be different with the Cards defense but ultimately the final product remains the same….a bunch of pig butts.
I touched on it my quarter season recap last week that in the absence of a couple team leaders (Jon Geenard and Dorian Etheridge) due to injuries a few freshman are stepping up in a big way on defense. Jarrett Jackson (DL) leads the team in sacks, has forced a fumble, and is second on the squad in TFL while Robert Hicks (LB) and Nick Okeke (LB) have both shown the ability to make big plays as well. The defense is young in most spots with a mix of upperclassmen here and there. The secondary started off rough but have slid into a respectable position nationally in passing defense led by safeties Dee Smith and TreSean Smith (no relation) along with some help from Ohio State transfer Rodjay Burns at corner. Things are improving, but statistically speaking this is still just an average defensive team.
TN: Which match-ups with the Florida State offense concern you? Which do you think present an advantage for the Cardinals?
CC: While neither has had a game in the series to cause major concern I have some kind of personal fear that Francois and/or Cam Akers is going to have a breakout game against the Cards. As I described above there are areas where both can capitalize on Saturday and I would not be shocked if FSU becomes the fifth team in five weeks to go for over 160 yards rushing against the Cardinals D. The frustrating part is that Louisville certainly has the talent up front to stop that attack but has just not shown the capability to do so thus far. Look for G.G. Robinson, Tabarious Peterson, Jarrett Jackson, and Jared Goldwire to get some push in the trenches. I think those guys are getting tired of hearing about the lackluster defense and will be looking to prove something against a big name like FSU. If they can force Francois into making tough throws and pushing him out of the pocket in passing situations they could make it a long day for that Seminole offense.
TN: How comfortable are you with Louisville’s special teams in the event this comes down to a kicking battle? Any previously unmentioned playmakers you’d like to point out?
CC: If it’s come down to special teams play to determine who wins on Saturday, first of all I’m thrilled, and second of all I feel extremely comfortable with who we would trot out there to win it. Most fans should be familiar with Blanton Creque (K) as he booted the game winner against FSU last year, but what you may not know is that he’s one of the most reliable kickers in the country the last three years. Not only is he 4-4 this year but Creque is connecting at an 86% clip in his career. If the game is in his hands, I’m high fiving folks around me before the ball comes off his foot (Not necessary something you could say for the Aguayo brothers the last few seasons). In other special teams news punter Mason King is Top 25 nationally with a 43.7yd average including seven fair catches and dropping eight inside the 20. On the opposite side of the ball Rodjay Burns has become quite the punt returner averaging 22.5yd/ret (5th nationally) and has already taken one back to the house. In the three phases of the game Louisville’s special teams is their top dog and is on par or better than most teams across the country.
TN: Finally, let’s get a prediction. The Seminoles opened as a 5-point favorite. How do you see FSU’s first return to Louisville since the 2016 beatdown unfolding?
CC: Let me just say that the 2016 game is probably on the list of my Top 5 favorite football games in Cardinal history. The atmosphere, College Gameday, Lamar more or less winning the Heisman in that game alone. It was fantastic. With that said, this ain’t 2016. The lack of offense from Louisville makes it nearly impossible for me to pick them with any level of confidence, and until they prove they can actually score points against a competent defense I have a tough time envisioning a scenario in which they can outscore someone in a back and forth battle. We’re five weeks in and UofL doesn’t know who their quarterback is, who their running back is, who should be starting on the offensive line, or why their wideouts can’t hold onto the ball. I think Jawon Pass gets the start this week and actually plays well enough that he remains the prominent QB moving forward, with Cunningham mixed in on occasion to keep the defense honest. If FSU struggled last week I may picks the Cards in a low scoring affair but putting up 37 against a good NIU defense makes me think Taggert is starting to get the wheels churning and Francois is getting a little more comfortable in the new offense. I’ll say FSU punches in a late touchdown to make it look worse than what really happened and walks out with a 24-13 victory. I hope I’m wrong….if not, Cardinal Stadium sells a pretty good hotdog.