Alright, it’s almost been a full week and I think that we can finally take some critical, non-knee-jerk reaction concerning the debacle that was last week’s Clemson game. Despite where you are on the range of emotions and evaluation, you are probably wrong. I will also say that despite where you are on that same range of emotions and evaluation, you are also probably right too. The same goes for me. As is the case in most of life, it is not as bad as it seems. Likewise, it is certainly not all beer and tacos either. Let’s examine it from both angles.
The Bad Defense
Okay, so if you are a glass half empty guy. You are certainly now well armed with enough proof to not only believe the sky is falling, but you can probably convince a large population of Cards fans that they too should seek cover. Who can blame you? After three weeks, the University of Louisville football team ranks 104th in total team defense.
Teams that fare better defensively than this year’s Louisville team? Let’s start with Missouri. The fighting Jason Anderson’s check in at 102nd nationally, and wooo boy, those guys suck. Disregard the fact that Boston College, NC State, Kentucky and others are all well ahead of Louisville at your own peril. While it is true that most teams have feasted on lesser competition at the start of the season, I think anyone who has been paying attention will agree that this year’s defensive squad is not exactly generating a lot of confidence.
This Louisville team has given up 70 first downs through three games. The number ranks 108th in NCAA play this year, and it could be far worse. Don’t forget that Clemson had 4 huge plays for touchdowns last week that accounted for exactly 0 first downs. The feeling that Louisville has been escorting teams down the field is certainly backed by the statistics and in Clemson’s case, it was at times a full on police escort that didn’t stop every ten yards for cross traffic.
The Defensive Excuses
It is true that this is a team who is in need of its star cornerback. Jaire Alexander is a difference maker, and his presence is missed greatly. That’s about all I am going to excuse and it doesn’t mean that all is forgiven. While Alexander can shut down his man, or his half of the field, there is no evidence that the remaining players in the secondary are capable of the same. When will Alexander return? Who knows the answer to that question, but the fact remains that until he does, opposing teams will likely continue to stretch the field vertically against the Cards, and who can blame them?
Another common refrain is that this is a first-year defensive coordinator and it takes time for his system to come together. Yeah, okay, I’m gonna have to cry foul on that excuse. The problem with this year’s defense doesn’t stop with Jimmies and Joes, it also appears that X’s and O’s are not kind for the Cardinals this year either. While the “third and Grantham” blitzes we all grew to loathe are no longer plaguing this team, the bend but don’t break strategy from new guy Peter Sirmon hasn’t exactly won any beauty contests either. I haven’t gone back to count the defensive schemes employed against Clemson, but I feel it is safe to say that zone coverage and no blitzing has become commonplace in this year’s defense. How about this as a solution? It’s not all or nothing. Blitz some on second down, play a bit of man coverage, what’s the worst that could happen? There are only 21 more spots in the entire NCAA that this team could fall from a defensive statistic perspective.
The Bad on Offense
So let’s flip to the other side of the ball. If you said; “Surely, the offense is better for Louisville than their counterparts on defense” you would be right. Kind of. From a statistical perspective, Louisville finds themselves ranked at or near the top in a number of offensive categories. Top ten in passing efficiency, 11th in total passing offense, and 47th in scoring offense. The problem comes in the detail. A number of Lamar Jackson’s stats against Clemson came after the game had long since been decided. If you want to point to his stats from that game as proof positive of his value, I suppose you won’t get that much of an argument from many “fans.” But if you are honest, there is significant evidence that Lamar Jackson, while improved, is far from where he needs to be in order to have this Cardinal team at the top of the NCAA football landscape.
What would help Lamar Jackson, and this U of L squad is a commitment to the running game and a firm decision at running back. I don’t care who it is, put somebody’s ass back there, hand him the ball 20-25 times, and let’s go. Actually, I do care who it is. I don’t think that Reggie Bonnafon is the answer at running back. I like him, I think that he has a place on the field, somewhere, but is he the key ingredient at running back? I’m not sold.
The other alternative is to run the pure wheels off of Lamar Jackson. I don’t like this approach because it tends to make Jackson subject to injury, but the team has to have some dominant run game, or threat of a run game in order to make the other areas more potent. All in all, Bobby is going to figure out ways to score points, and get yards, to pick at the offense is really just because it did not look “elite” in the Clemson game.
The Miscellaneous Bad
Turnovers, penalties, and special teams lapses have got to be corrected. It is not going to be possible to go into Tallahassee and give the ball away repeatedly or to have big plays called back due to penalties. Further, if you hand FSU, or anybody really, a special teams touchdown, you are just tempting fate. All of these are areas that can be cleaned up, and all should, but again, there is no evidence that they are going to be. Until Louisville proves that they can eliminate these types of mistakes, along with the other shortcomings that they have, Louisville fans have to at least acknowledge that 9-3 or 8-4 is a possibility.
The Offensive Good
On offense, it starts and stops with Lamar Jackson. True, he does have areas where he can improve. Accuracy, staring down receivers, etc, etc, etc, but overall, he IS the Heisman trophy winner for a reason. He has matured his game and he is capable of taking over as he demonstrated against UNC.
Another offensive plus has got to be the offensive line play. Sure, they started out rocky, and they gave up sacks against Clemson, (who hasn’t) but they have steadily improved. I feel far more confident in the play of the O-line than I do of the defensive secondary. Creating a solid O-line will take time and repetition, I am hopeful that the next two cupcakes will allow for both and for there to be solid growth by the time Louisville returns to conference play on Thursday, October 8th at NC State.
Dez Fitzpatrick. If you are talking about bright spots on Louisville’s offense, and you don’t include Dez, you are doing it wrong. He is the future for Louisville at WR and Cards fans better watch as much as they can, cause he gone as soon as possible. Dude is going to make big money and big impact playing football on Sundays for a really long time.
The Defensive Good
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My Overall Outlook
Now, you can look at what was written above and come away with the idea that I don’t like this team. If you are “fanboy” or “fangirl” and cannot take objective criticism of your squad, what I am about to write won’t change your opinion. I don’t think that this Louisville team is bad. I am just not sold on the fact that they are going to win 9 or 10 games this year.
I have heard that a lot of Louisville fans are abandoning ship because of a big loss to Clemson. I don’t think that is the reason that Louisville fans are upset. Clearly, Louisville is not on Clemson’s level. The upsetting part is that Louisville has shown that they are just as capable of being 0-3 or 1-2 as they are of 2-1. If Jeff Brohm were armed with 5 more true D-1 prospects, do you all really think he wouldn’t have found a way to win?
The other reason for concern is that this is a Louisville team that appears to be moving in the wrong direction, at least with respect to the Clemson comparisons they are. You cannot lose three games by a collective 15 points and then lose by 26 (at home) to the same program without people asking pointed questions. Rightfully so. Look, I get that they were the returning national champions. I also get that they started a new quarterback and lost a ton to graduation and the NFL. If the excuse is that they have better players, okay, point taken. But guys, Bobby Petrino used to beat teams with better players all the time. You don’t go 41-9 at U of L in the early 2000’2 because you were that much more talented than everybody else.
In the end, I think that this Louisville team is a 9-3 or 8-4 squad. I would love to be wrong, and I think that they can probably do a game or two better, but I also think that they can do a game or two worse. Certainly, if the latter happens, then I will have lived to see something that I didn’t think was possible. A Louisville football fan base who is in full meltdown mode at 7-5. I for one would be right there with you.
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