This week the Tigers head up to Louisville looking to extend their win streak to 22 games and reach 7-0 on the season. The Louisville Cardinals are coming off a big win at Wake Forest as their rebuild is coming along much faster than expected under new Head Coach Scott Satterfield. To help us preview the game, we connected with CardinaIStrong of the Card Chronicle. You can following him on Twitter here.
STS: Last season, Louisville finished 2-10 (0-8) and looked every bit as bad as the record indicates. They surrendered 77 points at Clemson in what was the worst defensive performance I’ve ever seen in-person (including FCS opponents). Frankly it looked like they weren’t trying.
This season, Louisville has already earned two ACC wins including a road win against the (formerly) ranked Wake Forest Demon Deacons. Louisville has lost at home to Notre Dame and on the road to the underperforming but still very talented Florida State Seminoles. With four wins already earned and very winnable games against NC State, Syracuse, and Kentucky remaining they’re likely going bowling.
That leads me into our first question. Did we overestimate how big of a rebuilding project this was going to be for Coach Satterfield? Can you tell us a little about how he’s turned it around so quickly?
CC: In my personal opinion, the product many saw on the field the majority of last year wasn’t only a large deviation from what the Louisville football program had grown into the last 15 years but was a large deviation from what we saw as recent as Week 1 of the same season. You said above it looked like they weren’t trying, and while it’s tough to argue that I may tweak the wording slightly and say they lost their motivation. Nearly every week you saw the juice on the sideline before kickoff, you heard the right things leading up to gameday, and then as soon as they got punched in the face, they took their ball and went home. During the offseason more and more came out about the toxic environment Petrino fostered and how the players were basically playing for themselves after it became apparent that the coaches were checked out.
The two stories that really irked me during the summer were both products of poor relationship management. The first was players not only having never been to Petrino’s office in the football complex but legit not even knowing where it was located in the building. The second was the wave of local high school coaches who came out and said that Petrino never visited their school, he never called their school, and he never returned calls when coaches felt like they had guys who could play D-I and wanted to go to Louisville. You may not think of Louisville as a recruiting hotbed but not keeping talented local guys here is tough to swallow, especially considering the fact that one of those guys was a Heisman candidate heading into 2019 (Rondale Moore-PUR).
When Satterfield came in, the culture change was huge in getting the team to buy in. He sold love and family over fear and intimidation. We watched over the last ten months that Satterfield and his staff were not just giving out lip service and were showing firsthand they cared about these kids and wanted to build them back up both emotionally and physically. While the 2-10 record was tough to watch, we can’t forget that Louisville pulled in three straight Top 40 classes in 2016-2018. They had some talent that wasn’t getting a chance to excel, and those guys are seeing 2019 as a new opportunity to right some wrongs.
Before the season I thought this was a 3-5 year turnaround to get Louisville back to competing for conference championships. So far, its looking like that process may be closer to year three than year five.
STS: Jawon Pass was expected to be the QB headed into the season, but lately we’ve been seeing Malik Cunningham and true freshman Evan Conley. Cunningham left the Wake Forest game last week with injury, but Conley was able to continue the scoring barrage in what turned into a weird 62-59 Cardinals win. Can you catch us up on what’s transpired at QB for the Cardinals this season and tell us what we should expect to see from at the QB position on Saturday?
CC: Satterfield, without using so many words, had pointed to Pass as his guy as early as June or July. I think he saw the potential in Pass that had the likes of Auburn and Alabama going after him out of high school. Pass played fairly well in Week 1 against a good Notre Dame defense, but the second week of the season he got dinged with a lower extremity injury (foot) and hasn’t played since. News came out earlier this week he is done for the year.
Enter one Malik (please call me Micale) Cunningham. The dual-threat QB showed off his legs like he was Deana Carter in the late 90s but struggled in the passing game. He got a little nicked up as well treating his 192lb frame like he was Mike Alstott running up the gut, so less than three weeks into the year we see QB3, Evan Conley, the true freshman who Satterfield wanted when he was at App State and brought with him to Louisville. The young man wasn’t perfect, but he showed signs of life in the passing game that Louisville had been looking for. The development and understanding of the offense for both Evan and Micale has allowed them to drop 286 yards in the air on Florida State, 428 on Boston College, and 295 on Wake last week. The ground game had been punishing people and now they bring a much more balanced attack. Boston College and Wake aren’t defensive juggernauts but laying 41 and 62 on ACC teams in back to back weeks is nothing to scoff at.
STS: When Clemson has the ball on offense, what individual or position matchup gives you the most concern? Which, if any, gives you some optimism?
CC: The Louisville defense….is super nice, and they have a great personality. You’ll love them.
That side of the ball has had some moments that make me think they’re turning the corner, and some moments that make me think they lost the corner completely on a seam route right down the middle of the field. Louisville has improved over 2018 but they were dead last in many defensive categories last year so the floor was pretty low. The Cards have talent in the linebackers group (they’ll be without starting ILB Dorian Etheridge in the 1st half: targeting) and a couple dudes on the D-line but honestly, pretty much every skill player on Clemson scares me. Etienne could go for 200, Tee Higgins could drop 250, Lawrence could go for 5 TDs…anything is possible. The secondary was getting picked on last week and as painful as it may be to admit, they were successful in doing so, giving up 423 yards in the air. When I sit down in a couple weeks and binge some scary movies for Halloween I’m hoping ‘Higgins vs. Louisville Secondary’ isn’t on my playlist.
Optimism comes from the fact that Louisville has played against a second string QB in four of its six games so far this season knocking guys out on a regular basis, even if it’s just a series or two. If Clemson has to resort to their backup, Chase Brice, maybe they have a shot to keep it close late.
STS: It’s been a while since Louisville has had a running back that really worries the opposition (Brandon Radcliff?). RB Javian Hawkins has emerged this season and is currently 14th nationally (2nd in the ACC) in rushing yards. How critical has he been to the Cardinals 2019 turnaround? What should Clemson fans expect from Louisville’s rushing attack?
CC: Heading into the summer Hawkins was a “oh, and we have him too” type player. Everyone was looking at Hassan Hall to be he leader in that group coming off a decent 2018 where he established himself as a reliable back, while Hawkins finished 2018 with only 2 carries for 8 yards. The first preseason depth chart listed Hawkins as the number one guy and many wondered if it was a motivational technique. Nope. The kid is legit.
Hawkins has speed but also the ability to make cuts on a dime. His size (5-9/182) doesn’t allow him to play bruiser ball, but he doesn’t shy away from contact either. If you’ve got, oh I don’t know, around 4 minutes and 31 seconds of spare time you can check out this clip the ACC Digital Network put together on Hawkins so far this year. You’ll likely notice that not only is he is making plays but that O-line is equally as responsible for some of those big runs. Something to keep an eye on is Louisville’s big play ability from the run game. So far this year they have 42 runs of 10+ yards (15th nationally) and 9 runs of 30+ yards (6th nationally). A crease and some solid down field blocking allows Louisville to flip the field fast. FYI: Satterfield didn’t forget about Hassan Hall…he currently leads the country with a 38.78yd return average in the kicking game.
STS: Outside of Clemson, the ACC has been the worst we’ve seen in memory. It’s been quite the fall from 2016 when Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson, Mitchell Trubiski, Eric Dungey, and Brad Kaaya quarterbacked in the conference. Clemson fans would like the ACC to have a little more intrigue. UNC seems to be a program on the rise, but Louisville seems like the other that can emerge and make the ACC fun again. Do you think Louisville can be a consistently top 20 team and if so, how far are they from that?
CC: Yes. At risk of sounding like a Cowboys fan or a Notre Dame fan (you remember when we used to be good and won meaningful games) Louisville isn’t to far removed from being in that spot. In the last 20 years (1999-2019) of the AP Poll Louisville has finished in the Top 25 (8) times, Top 20 (6) times, and Top 10 (2) times. The have a couple BCS Bowl wins in their history and if you remember they tied for the Atlantic Championship just three seasons ago. The groundwork has been laid for them to have a program that can succeed at a high level, they’ve just had a run of coaches who achieve success and bolt for greener pastures (Oklahoma, Michigan State, Atlanta Falcons, Texas…) before they reach the mountaintop. Now that Louisville is in the ACC there is no reason to bolt unless you go to a bluebood program. You can win here, and I think Satterfield saw that when he made the move. I’ll make a bold prediction for you. Cards finish next year (2020) as a ranked team.
STS: The Tigers head to Louisville for a noon kickoff. They’ll be ~22 point favorites. Is Louisville capable of battling with the Tigers for a while like they did with Notre Dame? Can they actually pull off an upset?
CC: I fully expect Louisville and Clemson to go in at the half and we only see about a 7-10 point differential on the scoreboard. I think the Louisville offense can keep pace for 30 minutes and make this game interesting before you take your first bathroom break. As the second half plays out I think the depth of Clemson creates problems on both sides of the ball and they start to pull away late in the 3rd or early 4th. I’ll say Tutu Atwell goes for two scores and Conley ends up getting the majority of the snaps for Louisville. Cards have a chance to cover with a late FG but go for it down big and get stopped. Clemson walks out with a 55-28 win.
We hope you enjoyed this Q&A. Please consider following our guest, @CardinaIStrong, and our host, @Ryan_Kantor, on Twitter. The other half of this Q&A will be posted to the Card Chronicle. Be sure to check it out.