I’m going to give you 4 ‘things’ to watch during the game – player match-ups, strengths/weaknesses, etc. – so you’ll have a sense of what to watch for as the game plays out. You probably know me as a stat guy, so I assure you I’m still going to be analyzing the numbers for you and the patterns I find in the stat analysis will give us our 4 keys to the game, so to speak. I’ll then give you 2 predictions based on those things we’ll be watching for throughout the game that I’m confident will play a large role in the eventual outcome of the game. Ergo, you have “what 2 watch 4”.
Nobody wants to hear “a new season starts today” or “one game at a time” or any other cliche when their team is 0-3 after a relatively positive pre-season outlook. At this point, putting those 3 weeks behind is a must for this Louisville football team, but not without taking the lessons learned from them. What we know today is that this team lost 3 games by a total of 13 points. They have their problems, let’s be honest about that, but the wheels aren’t falling off yet. This Samford game comes at the perfect time, and these Cards will be desperate for a win. But really, more than a win, we as a collective – players, coaches and fans alike – just need some fun. Hopefully, that starts today. What I’m looking for today are just basic, minor improvements to a few areas. Like I said, the wheels aren’t falling off, and this team has done a lot of things well that aren’t getting much praise because of the negatives and the overall record. I would like to see consistency in what is going well and some minor improvements in these few areas.
Defensive line improvement against the run (and pass rush).
I think the first place to look for the improvement needed to overcome the very fine margins by which this team has lost is in areas of strength. With all of the struggles on offense, the defensive shortcomings are getting overlooked, to a degree. Improvement was made against Clemson in pass defense, but defending the run has become an issue. Louisville ranks 100th (out of 128) in rushing defense, allowing 4.48 yards per carry and 206 yards per game. That was against 3 talented running backs, but all 3 had arguably their best games of the season against Louisville. That starts at the front, where Deangelo Brown, Pio Vatuvei, Kyle Shortridge, and Drew Bailey (a.k.a. the line outside of Rankins) have combined for 7 solo tackles in 3 games. Trumaine Washington has 12 by himself. There are quite a few assisted tackles on the books for that group, but there are also a lot of assisted tackles on the books for the linebacking corps that has significantly higher solo tackle numbers, collectively and individually. Louisville is 101st in sacks, 103rd in tackles for loss, and is averaging giving up almost 400 yards per game. In that, though, Louisville’s only allowed 3 plays all season of more than 30 yards, which says that plays are getting stopped when they reach the secondary.The line (excluding Rankins, who has been solid) simply has to be better. I would like to see 4 yards per carry or less, at least 2 sacks and a few tackles for loss by linemen.
Get off the field on 3rd down.
Louisville ranks 100th nationally, allowing opponents to convert on 43.48% of 3rd downs faced. If memory serves me well, a fair number of those weren’t 3rd and short either. The pursuit angles need to be better, in addition to improving in the aforementioned battle in the trenches. Too often have we seen guys overrun the play or simply underestimate the speed/quickness of the ball carrier. One year ago, Louisville was 10th in college football in 3rd down defense. A lot of talent departed after last season, but I don’t think anybody would suggest this defense lacks talent, particularly with the guys who transferred in. Some of the problems with pursuit angles and formations are coaching and some are on players performing. Please no more medium-to-long conversions.
Stay on the field on 3rd down.
The team’s favorite down is most definitely not 3rd down. The offense is having almost an equally difficult time with 3rd down as the defense is. Louisville has converted on just 36% of their 3rd down attempts, which is good enough for 90th, just behind Florida Atlantic. It’s early in the season, with a front-loaded schedule and 3 different quarterbacks, but we need to stop that from becoming a trend. Again, some of this is coaching/play-calling, and some of it is player performance, particularly in the blocking department and establishing short distances by having success on 1st and 2nd downs, but unless Louisville can convert more on offense, they’ll have more time on the field and a harder time of gettings stops on defense. It goes hand-in-hand. We’ve got to do a better job on 3rd down, all around.
Win the 1st quarter… Win all 4 quarters, but especially the 1st quarter.
A staple of “Bobby Ball” was always (1) win the toss, (2) receive the opening kick-off, (3) run pre-planned plays for the entire 1st drive, (4) march down the field and score. Through 3 games in 2015, Louisville has not won a 1st quarter yet, scoring just a single 1st quarter touchdown. Furthermore, the Cardinals have scored just 17 of their 72 total points in the 1st halves of those 3 games. You can flip that and say 55 points in the 2nd halves is pretty awesome, with which I’d agree. However, while there’s value in being a solid 2nd half team, it means little if your 1st half performance digs an insurmountable hole, which was a problem against Auburn for sure, and didn’t help things against Houston or Clemson either. Take away the turnovers and the biggest threat to our defense has been the time they’ve had to be on the field. If Louisville’s offense can put together more drives in the 1st half, the defense will be fresher in the 2nd half to hold on and not give up as many late points themselves. Then we can start capitalizing on 2nd half offense to create wins instead of comebacks. Let’s score early (and often).
Prediction 1: ____ will start at QB and will throw at least 1 interception.
Yay jokes… Seriously, INTs are part of the game and something you have to live with when you play young/inexperienced QBs. We’ve been spoiled with Bridgewater, but we need to let these kids make their mistakes so they can learn from them and improve. As much as you can get on Jackson and Bolin for their turnovers, both have shown the ability to make plays. They have what Kirk Herbstreit would call “a short term memory”. Regardless of which QB starts the game, he’s going to throw a pick at some point. Don’t get down on him. He’s going to throw some TDs while he’s at it. (Actual prediction: 2 TDs, 1 INT, 250+ yards, >60% completion)
Prediction 2: Louisville’s rushing offense will get it right & have a statement performance with 150+ and multiple scores.
Samford obviously isn’t a historic powerhouse, and they’ve yet to hold a team under 100 yards rushing this season – Central Arkansas ran for 119 yards, Florida A&M ran for 186 yards and Chattanooga ran for 271 yards, ableit on 53 carries. I highly doubt we’re going to see Louisville run the ball 50 times, or even 40 times, but I’m betting we’ll see a fair amount of outside runs and read options that will go for long-ish gains. 150 might be a little bit of a high estimate if the passing game goes nuts, but I’m feeling optimistic that this is the week our luck turns around on the ground game.
Louisville should win this game easily. That said, to this point, we’ve done a good job of beating ourselves better than our opponents have beaten us, so realistically our toughest opponent to-date is still going to be taking the field today – us. Stop beating ourselves and this will be the fun win we very much need.
Score Prediction: Louisville 35- Samford 14
Andy Knabel joined on as a contributing writer for The Cardinal Connect in August of 2013. You can follow Andy on Twitter @knabelism.