We’re very fortunate to have the SB Nation network of team sites to work with during game weeks. This week we’re chatting with John aka CardinaIStrong, a staff editor over at Card Chronicle, SBN’s blog for the Louisville Cardinals. You can also find him on Twitter here. We chatted about Louisville’s journey over the last couple seasons, Malik Cunningham’s development as a passer, and dove into some X’s and O’s.
TN: Louisville finished 4-7 last season but the Cardinals also appear to have been a bit unlucky, going 0-4 in one-score games. That looks like it’s turned around a bit this season with a thrilling one-score win over UCF last week sealed by a late pick-six. Do you think last season’s struggles will help this year’s team, and what’s the ceiling for Louisville in 2021?
CC: Yeah, I wrote something at the end of the year last season highlighting the close games. You can check it out here if you like, but the short version is that they were very “unlucky” in close contests and did themselves no favors by being garbage in both creating turnovers and turning the ball over themselves. Finding a way to win last week was a big hurdle in my brain as you start going “full clench” every time things get close knowing you’ve lost 5 or 6 in a row in that scenario. Walking on the field with under a minute left thinking you blew it to full euphoria one play later can help in the belief that they are never out of it moving forward.
In a normal season I think the cap on this team is bowl eligible. I projected them at 6-6 or 7-5 range but with the ACC looking a bit rough I could see an outside chance at winning 8 or 9 games. That would really help the projection of the program as things were teetering on meltdown mode less than a week ago if they lost to UCF.
TN: Tell us about the quarterback development of Malik Cunningham. We all know what he can do on the ground. Has he grown at all as a passer over the last two seasons? Should there be any concern that his 7.5 average yards per attempt this season is about a full yard fewer than last season and the second-lowest of his career?
CC: Yes, there should be concern, but not all of it directed at Malik. Coming into the year I was as nervous as a Miami fan walking into a library about the Cards wide receivers. They lost two guys to the NFL (Dez Fitzpatrick/Tutu Atwell) and the returning experience were mostly situational guys that had never been asked to be a number one. Three games in I had hoped we could see a clear line in the sand of two or three players separating themselves but I’m not so sure we’re there yet. We need a Justin Marshall to be that guy or a Jordan Watkins to step up and be a safety valve for Malik, someone he can always look to to create separation.
On the flip side, Malik has to improve as well. He’s a great quarterback, can do wonders on the ground, and has improved in the passing game, but he has to be better. Fans lost their minds during the Ole Miss game when one of Satterfield’s halftime comments was directed at Malik improving his progressions and finding guys who were open. “How can he blame Malik” “Malik is getting crushed with no time” “Offensive Line stinks, stopping blaming Malik”...you get the picture. Yet in that game, against EKU, and in the UCF game anytime they showed replays of sacks or QB scrambles you can clearly see one or two wideouts open but Malik wasn’t keeping his eyes downfield or waiting to get through his progressions. He’s good, and he looked better last week, but he needs to start hitting guys in those 10-12 yard routes and beyond to open up the run and keep the secondary honest.
TN: With Cunningham at QB, what are some of Louisville’s bread and butter pass concepts?
CC: The Satterfield offense is going to be predominantly zone runs no matter who is taking the snaps, but last week he had a good game plan mixing it up with short routes and running some RPO. The leading receiver in terms of receptions is All-ACC candidate Marshon Ford at Tight End, but that should paint a picture of where the pass game is. Look for guys in the flats, look for guys in bubbles, sweeps across the middle, comebacks at 5-6 yards, etc. The vertical stuff they are doing is usually off trick plays or simply not being executed properly. Back in 2019 the run game forced seven in the box and Malik connected on some bombs, it was beautiful to watch, but that’s just not happening right now. Maybe it’s Malik, maybe it’s the wideouts, maybe it’s great coverage, but I think FSU will try to execute a similar game plan and keep everything in front of them. Death by a thousand 4 yard gains.
TN: What kind of coverages does Louisville like to run on defense? And despite Louisville blowing FSU out last season 48-16, FSU managed 265 yards rushing at a brisk 6.6 yards per carry clip. How do you expect the Cards to try and shut down FSU’s running game this time?
CC: The Cards still run a modified 3-4 base defense with one of the OLB playing the “Card” position or what other programs call a “star”, a guy who can float towards the line, play back off the line or even play in coverage on the slot. The defense is improving week over week in my opinion and the front seven has some vets that have now been in the Bryan Brown (DC) system for three seasons. They know their role better, and they are starting to execute it as expected. The problem last year was that the front was very hit or miss. Literally. They would either hit you and bring you down at the line or miss you completely and you could go for 8-10 yards before getting touched. While it’s better, both teams with capable backs have put up around 200 yards on the ground this year. Win or lose, if FSU wants to stick with the run they will likely do the same.
TN: In that game last year, Javian Hawkins exploded for 174 yards and three touchdowns. He’s now in the NFL. How has Louisville replaced his production this season? Are there any other players on offense or defense who have NFL potential?
CC: The Cards are leaning on Jalen Mitchell to be the guy this year but he’s not the same type back as “Playstation” Hawkins. Mitchell is a chiseled 221lb and looks to run over anything in his path. That approach didn’t work all that well against Ole Miss as they have some pretty big guys who are also not afraid of contact and they held him under 50 yards. Against EKU and UCF Mitchell matured a bit, started waiting for lanes to open, and even had some pretty nice cutbacks across the field instead of just bullrushing the entire defense. The Cards have a vet (Hassan Hall) and a newcomer (Trevion Cooley) who will also see time, but Mitchell and Cunningham will see the lionshare of the carries.
TN: Alright, it’s that time. Louisville opened as 1pt favorites and the line has moved to 2.5. How does Louisville get it done? Give us a score prediction.
CC: Satterfield keeps the innovative play calling from last week going and mixes it up enough to keep FSU on their toes. I fully expect some fight from the ‘Noles as they want desperately to avoid an 0-4 start but after a couple early gut punches Milton is forced to try and make plays against an All-ACC corner in Keir’Trel Clark and a secondary that now has some transfers with experience. A late play action dump off to Marshon Ford in the redzone seals the victory and folks in Tallahassee start talking about “buy outs” and “Deion Sanders recruiting at the D-I level”. Cards 38-20
A big thank you to John for taking the time to chat with us! Click here to read our answers to CardinaIStrong’s questions. Don’t forget to check out Card Chronicle for your Cardinal coverage needs. FSU plays Louisville at 3:30pm Saturday. Also, if you’re interested you can check out our Q&A from last season here.