You never know what you’re going to get from Louisville athletics, for better or worse the Cardinals are exceptional. With that said, we got used to expecting a certain level of competence during Petrino’s Return.
Then 2018 happened. Petrino teams have cratered before, often in spectacular fashion. Some of the best stories to come out of college football are just Bobby Petrino doing things. But this was unprecedented. A nationally televised opener against Alabama ended in a rout. Afterwards the Cardinals had a brief resurgence, cratered and somehow got worse with each passing week.
The thing about rock bottom is that it’s just a cliff, you’re always free to pick yourself up and walk off it again. Louisville’s last four games, against Clemson, Syracuse, NC St. and Kentucky, ended in an average score of roughly 60-15. Somehow this wasn’t the worst thing to happen to Louisville athletics that year. In hindsight, it seemed like Lamar Jackson was all but keeping Cardinal Stadium’s lights on. Bobby Petrino was let go.
What did the good people in charge of Louisville athletics do? Well they did what everyone least expected, and went and made a totally sensible hire. Scott Satterfield comes to the program from Appalachian State, where he helped the Mountaineers ace the transition to the FBS. His first year the Mountaineers went 4-8 in the Southern Conference. Then they kicked the Sun Belt’s doors in, winning 7, 11, 10, 9, and 10 games. Satterfield’s Mountaineers (29th in SP+) would probably have thrashed Louisville (98th) last year.
So here we are halfway through this season, and Satterfield has the Cardinals sitting at a respectable 4-2 (2-1 ACC). Still, Louisville is coming off a true year zero and have only played one team in the SP+ top 40 (a 17-35 loss to ND). SP+ ranks Louisville 53rd this year, one spot ahead of an FSU team Clemson just beat convincingly.
Louisville operates primarily out of 11 and 12 personnel pistol formations. The Cardinals offense has been able to overcome turmoil at the Quarterback position (switching between a banged-up backup whose best skill is running in Micale Cunningham and third string true freshman Evan Conley the last few weeks) to light up scoreboards lately. It helps that the receivers have been on fire. Tutu Atwell, Seth Dawkins and Dez Fitzpatrick each went for over 100 yards against Boston College. Fitzpatrick has had three 100+ yard games in a row. Tight End Marshon Ford only has eight receptions, but did haul in a 48 yarder against FSU. Javian Hawkins and Hassan Hall have been solid at running back all year long. Hawkins, another freshman and the more productive of the two, might be a problem for a while. Hall is one of the best kick returners in the country.
The pair have had help. Louisville’s offensive line has been solid run blocking. The Cardinals line gives up too much penetration (96th in TFL’s allowed) but does a good job opening holes for the duo to run through. A variety of ball fakes, receiver motions and unbalanced formations are used to confuse the defense before the Cardinals run them over.
The skill players have made the most of it, as Louisville has one of the most explosive running games in the country. Both Cunningham and Conley can carry the football, although Cunningham is a better, and more willing runner. Zone-read’s and speed options are part of the offense but used sparingly if Conley is in the game, ditto QB draw.
This is a zone running team that uses their TE’s to provide a variety of looks to the defense, and sometimes as lead blockers. Louisville emphasizes getting double teams on inside zone, and run a laterally oriented version of outside zone. This kind of scheme requires a running back who can find a hole and accelerate through it. Hawkins reads defenses better than any freshman should and can cut on a dime.
I would expect the Cardinals to lean on the run in an attempt to keep the game close. That was the plan during Satterfield’s time at App State, as he put it “we’ve kinda gone back to running the football and a little bit more slowing the game down and limiting the offensive possessions for the other team, and that’s helped us since we moved up to the FBS level”. Clemson’s defensive line should be able to get into the backfield, but it’s up to the entire front to maintain gap control.
As you may have guessed when I was talking about Louisville potentially being down to their third string QB, the offensive line struggles pass blocking.
The Cardinal’s running backs are essentially non-factors in the passing game because they’re needed to pass protect. The tight-end’s production has suffered as well since they’re often limited to chip-blocking and releasing to be a check down. In addition, the Cardinals like to run play-actions that require their TE/RB to execute the play-fake. They run bootlegs as much as any team I’ve seen.
When the offense is humming, Louisville combines a power running game with a vertical passing game. The Cardinals are looking to take the top off the defense every single time they drop back. When the quarterbacks have time in the pocket, they’ve generally been able to do so.
Everything starts with the threat of a receiver running downfield, then they hit comebacks and crossing routes when the defense backs off. They attack the middle of the field with mesh pretty well too.
Quick passing isn’t really featured, and while play-action is a big part of the offense, RPO’s aren’t. They’re not particularly good at any type of screen passing either. If Louisville is going to move the ball through the air they’re going to do it throwing haymakers.
That’s probably the story of this game to be honest. Louisville is going to see if it can run on Clemson’s front, and they might have more success than Tiger fans are used to seeing. Clemson is smaller at defensive tackle than in years past, Pinckney and Davis are both listed around 300 lbs. and can be moved with double teams. We still don’t know if we have XT (or what condition he’s in) to set the edge. The linebackers have been a pleasant surprise so far, but all it takes is one bust for Louisville to break off a long run. If the Cardinals start running effectively you can bank on Tiger safeties getting into the box fast, leaving the corners in difficult matchups outside. If the Clemson offense sputters Louisville could absolutely break off enough big plays to keep things interesting. Or it could all fall apart in a series of TFL’s and sacks against a superior opponent. Welcome to Louisville football, it’s anything but dull.