And in that corner… The Louisville Cardinal

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Another Saturday, another football game for Notre Dame. And because of last weekend’s loss to Northwestern, the Irish face what now feels like a must-win game on Senior Day.

In comes Louisville, a 7-3 team in their first season under second-term Cardinals head coach Bobby Petrino, who has seen his share of the rocky road since leaving Papa John’s Stadium in 2006. And while Irish fans have been jumping off the bandwagon by the hundred, Notre Dame is actually still favored against the Cardinals, though an opening line of 9 points has dropped to 3.5 or 4, depending on your Vegas expert of choice.

That’s largely an indication of how people see Louisville. While the jury seems to be out on the Irish (at least if you listen to the fandom), they’re still in deliberations about the Cardinals, a 7-3 team with a less-than-meaty resume. Victories against cupcakes Murray State and FIU. ACC wins against Wake Forest, Syracuse, NC State and a loss to Virginia, four of the worst teams in their conference.

While an opening victory over Miami looks like their best victory of the year, their top performance — just like the Irish’s — seems to be a loss to Florida State. Though in a primetime Thursday night affair, the Cardinals gave up 35 second-half points to blow a 21-7 lead and ended up losing 42-31, the victims of more second-half Jameis Winston magic.

To help us make heads or tails of Louisville’s season, Mark Ennis is here. Writing occasionally at Card Chronicle, Mark also hosts a radio show in Louisville on ESPN-680, while displaying an excellent overall Twitter game at the appropriately-titled handle @MarkEnnis.

I asked, Mark answered. I hope you all enjoy.

 

Let’s start this Q&A with an unorthodox question. How much better does Louisville feel about their chances next Saturday after (hopefully not actually) watching Notre Dame’s loss to Northwestern? We’ll get to the action game in a second, but what was the reaction when you saw that final score pop up?

I was genuinely stunned only because I’d been flipping around incessantly that day and the last I’d looked at the score Notre Dame was up 40-29 and seemed to have the game under control. It does make me think Louisville has a better shot of winning than maybe I did even after the Arizona State game because it was at home and because it reinforces that the things that killed them against Arizona State (turnovers, defense) really weren’t one game blips. They seem to be systemic issues that have really hurt Notre Dame for much of the season.

 

On to Louisville football. Biggest story we’ll likely be talking about come Saturday is the loss of Will Gardner. What does backup Reggie Bonnafon bring to the mix?

The bad news for Notre Dame is that Reggie Bonnafon makes Louisville’s offense look a lot more like the North Carolina/Arizona State/Northwestern offenses that they really struggled to defend well. Reggie is not as big as Will and he doesn’t always react to pressures as well or as quickly as Will did. But, Reggie has a very strong arm and throws the ball with confidence.

The big difference with Reggie is that he’s very fast and very comfortable running the ball when necessary. With Will, they were always guarding him running because of his knee issues. With Reggie, they easily work in bootlegs and rollouts as well as pistol and shotgun spread option stuff to take advantage of his mobility.

 

After watching Nortwestern run all over Notre Dame, you’ve got to expect Bobby Petrino to lean on the run game, right? How equipped are the Cards to do that?

We’ve all heard of Michael Dyer, and watched him rip off some impressive first-half runs against Florida State. But redshirt sophomore Brandon Radcliff is leading the team in rushing. Against a beat up Notre Dame front seven, do you see this being the game plan?

I definitely do, especially with the desire to keep things simple for Bonnafon and to use his mobility. Since the loss to Virginia and then the win at FIU, Louisville has worked extremely hard at developing the running game and it has improved markedly since the early part of the season. Saturday I expect Louisville to use Dyer and Radcliff (who are similar styles of runners. Short, powerful, rarely tackled by the first guy) as well as possibly freshman LJ Scott. Additionally, as I mentioned above, they’ll have designed runs for Bonnafon as well. Successful running means play action and that means throwing it down the field to DeVante Parker.

 

Let’s flip to the other side of the football. The Cards have a Top 10 defense. They are incredibly stout against the run, while giving up less than 200 passing yards a game. Is this a product of taking over Charlie Strong’s excellent defense or did Petrino and million-dollar coordinator Todd Grantham doing things differently?

It’s a healthy dose of both. Charlie Strong left Petrino and Grantham plenty of good players to work with, especially up front. But the coaches have also done a good job fitting the pieces they inherited to the scheme they want to run. It was really the perfect time to move to a 3-4 because they’ve got a bunch of really good linebackers and big, 2 and 3-technique guys along the line. What Grantham has done so well is get the safety position so strong. He got through to Gerod Holliman and got James Sample, a JUCO signee, up to speed right away. It might surprise people to learn that the safety spot was the biggest concern coming into the season. Grantham and the staff really did a good job settling it quickly.

 

Looking at Gerod Hollimon, I thought there was a mistake when I looked at the stats. Thirteen interceptions with two games to go? (And one still against Notre Dame…) 

Can you spend a little bit of time explaining just how incredible his season has been, where exactly Holliman came from (he made 16 tackles last year with zero INTs) and how it’s possible that most Irish fans haven’t heard of him.

Hollimon was a US Army All-American signee for Louisville. He didn’t qualify out of high school but signed and enrolled after a season in a prep school. They had high hopes for him but he didn’t set the world on fire right away and they had Calvin Pryor at his position just a class ahead of him. Sometimes a player that is buried on the depth chart (which Holliman was behind Calvin Pryor) and who might have lost some of the confidence of the previous coaches (he had), is able to take advantage of the fresh start that new coaches bring. That’s what Holliman has done. He’s not blazingly fast and he’s really not out of this world in coverage, but he’s extremely instinctive, rarely out of position, and it sounds funny to say but he really catches the ball well. The ball seems to find him.

 

Let’s get to Petrino. This isn’t exactly the prodigal son returning, but it isn’t too far off. Is he a different guy than the one who built this program? What’s this season been like and after 10 games does this feel like the right fit?

The season has pretty much the opposite of what most people expected. I expected Petrino to really max out the offensive players he inherited and for the defense to struggle early and improve some over the season. Instead, the defense has been outstanding and injuries have really hampered offensive continuity. Still, 7-3 with two games to go isn’t too far off what most people expected and it can still end up being a 9-3 team in a good bowl with a chance to win 10 games for third straight year.

As for Bobby, he does seem to be somewhat different. But, I temper that by saying those of us on the outside really don’t ever know. Going by things like his demeanor towards the media and local publicity events, he’s much different. He’s making efforts to be visible with his family and repair some of what’s been done there. It’s really all he can do. The only way he sheds the “runaway bride” label is if he actually just stays. And there’s no way to fast-forward through that.

As for fit, he’s much better than I actually expected. The biggest indicator is on the recruiting trail. Louisville is hovering around a top 25 recruiting class and frankly that was never the case with Bobby here before or at Arkansas. If he grows roots and recruits like that, Tom Jurich will have the last laugh again.

 

Help me figure out the Cardinals. They looked like world-beaters in the first half against FSU. They’ve played less than inspired football in a few other games. What do you expect to see happen on Saturday afternoon in South Bend?

I actually think a team that looks like world beaters and then average both across games and within the same game is a pretty good description of Louisville. When they’re clicking, they can play with anyone for stretches. Having DeVante Parker back has been a tremendous boost for the offense because he is open even when he’s not open. I think Louisville’s defense will be a real problem for Notre Dame and the offense will do just enough for them to steal the game. Something like 28-20.