The Virginia Cavaliers host their first ACC game of the season this weekend as they welcome the Louisville Cardinals to Charlottesville for a midday game. The Cardinals come into the game with the same 2-1 record as the Hoos after getting understandably rocked by Alabama, pulling away from Indiana State late, and squeaking by Western Kentucky.
In order to get some more info on our conference mandated rivals from the land of bourbon, we chatted with CardinalStrong (@CardinalStrong) from Card Chronicle. You can check out my answers to his questions here.
STL: How much do you think you can glean off of the first three games when you look at having to face Alabama, a rain-soaked game, and then the struggles against WKU? Is this team performing above, below, or about what you expected?
CS: Almost every year I’m stuck somewhere between being a realist and an optimist when it comes to Louisville athletics. Before the season began I felt as if UofL had the talent to field an 8-4 team and the players and the staff certainly were not doing or saying anything to diminish those expectations. Petrino went so far as to say this may be his best offensive team since he came back to Louisville, and getting rid of Peter Sirmon as the defensive coordinator was an automatic upgrade on that side of the ball. Three weeks in and well….I don’t see 8-4 anymore. You can throw Week 1 out the window as it appears that everyone is going to get steamrolled by Alabama, and while it may be easy to write of the Indiana State contest due to a torrential downpour the second half was nearly rain free, and things still did not flow with any consistency on either side of the ball. So much so in fact that the “QB in waiting” for the last three years, Puma Pass, was pulled in favor of the dual-threat freshman Malik Cunningham who finally helped create some separation against the Sycamores in the second half. Fast forward seven days and it was a new chapter but the same book. The Cards, on paper, should have manhandled Western Kentucky but were getting pushed around like they were the 22-point underdogs the entire first half. Enter Malik Cunningham, again, and he created enough offense to allow them to squeak out another victory in a game that shouldn’t have been close. I’m not sure you could find a single fan who says this team is performing above their expectations; you may find a few more who say they expected this from day one, but the vast majority of fans in red and black are not only disappointed but ‘hangry’…as in, hungry for more offensive firepower as the Cards only average 307 yards per game (120th nationally) and angry that a new defense is still giving up 326 yards per game on average after having played two “cupcake” opponents, putting them at 82nd in the nation on total defense. Neither of those is gonna get the job done as they enter conference play.
STL: You’re now deep in the woods of LALJ aka “Life After Lamar Jackson”. How’s that going?
CS: Not that great Caroline, thanks for asking. Hand up, I was one of the few that wasn’t too concerned with the QB position heading into the year. I loved what Puma could do in the pocket and I envisioned a “prototypical” Bobby Petrino offense with a pocket passer slicing up defenses and opening up a run game for our backs, something the Cards haven’t seen in over three years. Pass played well against the vaunted Alabama defense but has never looked comfortable the last two weeks. He suffered a turf toe injury in Week 2 but remained in the game for awhile after getting dinged up, never settling in and never being on the same page with his wideouts. Maybe it’s a nagging injury or maybe it’s mental at this point but Jawon ‘Puma’ Pass went 8-for-17 for 89 yards and two interceptions in his limited reps against Indiana Sate and Western Kentucky. No bueno. (I’ll also note that the wideout group considered to be one of the best in the conference heading into the year has not helped very much) There is no denying backup Malik Cunningham has generated more offense than Pass when given the opportunity but I think many fans can see that he is simply not ready to be a successful week in and week out starter in the ACC, because he was never expected to be. I wouldn’t be stunned to see Jawon return at some point this year as so much time and energy has been invested into him as the heir apparent but so far…LALJ is rough.
STL: Virginia brings a new three-headed monster into this game with Bryce Perkins at QB, Jordan Ellis at RB, and Olamide Zaccheaus at WR. When you look at the Louisville defense, what concerns you about facing that trio (if anything).
CS: Before I start responding to this question I’m trying to remind myself of my first answer above where I called myself an optimistic fan. It’s not that the defense is bad through three games, because last year was ‘bad’ but this year they seem to be lacking the motivation and the juice to go and make plays. In all fairness the Cards lost a defensive Captain in Jon Greenard Week 1 (he will be out numerous weeks) and last season’s leading tackling in linebacker Dorian Ethridge in Week 2. The backups have done a fine job being thrust into that role but some of the other vets in the secondary and along the line are simply not pulling their weight. In my opinion, I’m most concerned with Eliis and Perkins running it up and down the field. The Cards rushing defense is currently 96th nationally (188yd/g) but the bigger issue in my eyes is their inability to get off the field on 3rd down. The Cards are one of the worst in the country in that area allowing a 46.9% conversion rate, putting them in the bottom 10% nationally. Not getting off the field forces more plays, which means more time on the field for guys already considered backups in many spots, and the end result is exhausted players missing tackles and allowing opponents to have more “explosive plays”. As we saw last week, it only takes one missed tackle for Zaccheaus to turn a slip screen into a 86 yard touchdown, and Jordan Ellis only needs a couple missed arm tackles to burn you in the same way. If the Cards want to limit a Virginia offense that has already put up some big numbers this year they have to contain the run game and force Perkins to make throws.
STL: Cunningham was named the starter for Louisville. What do you like about his game and what’s something you worry about with him under center?
CS: The honest answer is that his sample size is so small my opinion on his pros and cons may be drastically distorted over the course of a 12 game season. From what I’ve seen so far, against considerably inferior opponents, Malik can certainly create a play when there is nothing else there. Multiple times in the last two weeks an unrecognized blitz or solid coverage downfield has forced him out of the pocket and allowed us to see his athleticism in open space, making guys miss, turning on the jets, and transforming a 3-yard loss into a 10 yard gain. For those with Lamar Jackson PTSD he is not on that level…yet, but he has absolutely shown he is a problem if you let him get in one-on-one situations with a defender. On the down side, he hasn’t developed the touch you would like to see for a QB in the Petrino offense nor has he been in the playbook long enough to consistently know his progressions. So many routes are dependent upon timing in Petrino’s offense and you can see he just doesn’t have that chemistry with the wideouts yet and the ball may be a second late or a second early resulting in incompletions that would usually be 8-15 yard gains. Those mistakes I can live with here and there, but the challenging part is that if option 1 isn’t available option 2 almost every single time is to scramble. While the offensive line has not held up there end of the bargain so far in 2018 there are situations where Malik is quick to retreat and look to make a play with his legs when he may have enough time to hit his second or third receiver. Lamar dealt with the same issues as a freshman and improved hand over fist in those areas each year, but it takes time and experience to get there. If the Cards stick with Cunningham moving forward they may have to just live with those issues for the foreseeable future.
STL: What is Louisville’s greatest strength this season, and what concerns you the most?
CS: I.Don’t. Know. If you asked me before the season I would have pointed at the stud group of wideouts, which I still think has three NFL caliber talents, but they largely have been underwhelming. I know it’s tough to make plays when the QB can’t get you the ball but even when they make the catch there is very little YAC, no explosiveness off the line, and the separation they seemed to get with ease in 2017 simply isn’t there with any consistency. The QB in waiting since 2015 just got benched three games in. The offensive line was pumped up as one of the best units on the whole team and they are getting pushed around by smaller and frankly less talented players. Things aren’t great, Caroline! If I put on my rose colored glasses I think Malik can transition into a reliable QB this year and establish a rhythm with his receivers’. We have to remember that this week…this one right here and now…is the first time he has gotten starter reps in practice, ever. Louisville has the talent on offense to put up 35-40 points every single week, and it may take a team reset to get back to that point, but I still believe Petrino can utilize weapons on that side of the ball once everyone gets on the same page. My concerns, outside of the ones mentioned above, remain on the defensive side. Last year Louisville’s defense was both visually and statistically one of the worst in the country (So bad that first year DC Peter Sirmon was relieved of his duties after 12 games). The Cards brought in Brian VanGorder to create a defense that was “aggressive” up front and created chaos. Mission accomplished. The problem is that all the blizting, stunting, multiple formations, etc has produced nearly identical results. They’re blitzing, but not getting sacks, they’re stacking seven in the box but not getting penetration…the optics are better but the stats tell the same story. In fact, in Bill Connelly’s updated stat profiles the Cards ‘Havoc Rate’ (% of plays you record TFL, FF, PBU, INT) was at 9.5% sitting them firmly at 129th in the nation in that category. The fire, the smoke, the lights, they all look nice…but the man behind the curtain tells us a different story.
STL: Ok onto important things. How excited are you for Coach Mack? Has he been informed that he’s required to find ways for Louisville to lose to Virginia?
CS: One thing I am NOT known for is my brevity (see responses above) but I’ll keep it short and sweet here. I appreciated what Coach Pitino did while at UofL and will forever be grateful for what he contributed to the program while here BUT I’m over the moon and back three times about what Coach Mack has been doing since stepping foot on campus. The small things are nice, like bringing back old players and coaches to promote the ‘one family’ atmosphere, interacting with fans on twitter and out in public appearing genuinely excited to be here, creating new events around the program to let fans see the team that had previously been brushed off as unimportant, and at the top of the list, he’s recruiting his butt off. At the time of me typing this he’s got a Top 5 class in 2019 with three 4-star kids committed and another two or three that are leaning the Cards direction. Ultimately he’ll need to win some games (including one or two against UVA) to get full buy-in from everyone but his offseason since being brought on board could not have gone much better.
STL: Prediction time...who ya got?
CS: Going back and reading through my answers above I think you caught me ‘in my feels’ Caroline. I was so amped for this season and the next chapter in Louisville football that the sluggish start has given me a negative point of view about a team I still think can put together a win streak and get to a bowl game. I think naming Malik the official starter and giving him time to prepare will create a buzz in the locker room about getting a ‘fresh start’ and will help trigger some emotions we haven’t seen from this squad since Week 1 against Alabama. I have no doubt the triple threat you mentioned above will put up some numbers this week and I’ll fully expect one of those three to break off a 50+ yard TD at some point on Saturday. With that said I think Petrino resorting back to the RPO section in his playbook that was used heavily from 2015-2017 will create some space on that side of the ball and force Virginia to make plays on defense they haven’t really been asked to make yet this season. As with 3 of the prior 4 contests I think we have a one possession game in the 4th quarter and the golden foot of Blanton Creque sends a game winner through the uprights with under 2:00 on the clock. I’ll go 27-24 Cards with Cunningham getting a TD both on the ground and in the air.
Well, there you have it! Huge thanks to CardinalStrong and the folks over at Card Chronicle for taking the time out to chat.
Oh, and just for good measure...