If Notre Dame fans think they had it rough in 2016, they should have spent some time around Louisville faithful last year. If nothing else, the two groups could have bonded over the inadequacies of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.
For the Irish three years ago, hope was tangible. The roster had clear talent and head coach Brian Kelly balanced reinvention with consistency. The Cardinals do not have any of those optimistic thoughts to lean on courtesy of since-deposed head coach Bobby Petrino.
Louisville finished 2-10, and that does not come close to describing how bad things were. Petrino was fired with two games remaining in the season, and the only surprising thing about that was that it took so long.
Twofold reasoning supported the delay: One, the Cardinals collapse was abrupt. In 2017 they averaged 38.1 points per game — with 2016 Heisman-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson leading the way — and gave up 27.4. The first of those numbers nearly halved, to 19.8, No. 122 in the country; while the latter leapt to 44.1.
Secondly, Petrino had a six-year contract and 2018 was his fifth season. A school already fighting Rick Pitino over severance was not eager to add to its buyout payroll.
In September, Petrino navigated two wins, over Indiana State and Western Kentucky. By November, a good day for Louisville’s defense included allowing only 52 points. The Cardinals gave up more than 50 points in their last five games, in six of their last seven, and in seven total. The most embarrassing moment came on a Friday night with little else to distract the college football viewing public when Georgia Tech ran for 542 yards. Yellow Jackets head coach Paul Johnson had waited a long time to get his chance to humiliate VanGorder, and he made the most of it in his last year coaching.
How bad was Louisville’s defense? Consider the below chart, in which the best possible defense would be a large circle and the worst would be a dot in the middle.
WHAT LOUISVILLE LOST
Well, Petrino and his coaching staff, which included three of his family members. Other than that, the only name that stands out is leading receiver Jaylen Smith (36 receptions for 550 yards and a touchdown), now working alongside former Notre Dame receiver Miles Boykin with the Baltimore Ravens.
The Cardinals also lost a couple offensive line starters and their leading tackler, but from a team that had no semblance of an effective running game and a defensive scheme that encouraged opponents to score, those should not be prohibitive departures.
WHAT LOUISVILLE GAINED
For starters, head coach Scott Satterfield and his staff, which is to say, Louisville gained credibility, even if it could not lure Jeff Brohm from Louisville.
From a roster standpoint, the recruiting class included two three-star running backs, either of which could become the Cardinals leading rusher this year. They may be running behind Florida graduate transfer TJ McCoy, in competition to earn the starting gig at center.
Colgate graduate transfer T.J. Holl joins the interior linebackers and, as an FCS All-American and an established veteran, could quickly take a leading role.
Satterfield was not Louisville’s first choice, but he was always the most likely one if Brohm opted to spurn his alma mater. Satterfield’s six years at Appalachian State featured a 51-24 record, which at first blush may not seem all that impressive. But remember, the Mountaineers faced a Power Five foe or two each season, and despite taking Penn State to overtime last September and coming within one point of Wake Forest in 2017, those were all losses.
A better way to gauge Satterfield’s success is how he fared against Appalachian State’s peers. In the last four years, the Mountaineers never suffered more than one Sun Belt loss, averaging 10.25 wins per season in that span and going 4-0 in bowl games, the first bowl games in their history. The last two of those were won by a combined 66 points.
There are two storylines to track here. If either was a non-issue, it could serve to support the other. Instead, quarterback questions are compounded by the lack of a running game, a facet Satterfield has always preferred to lean on.
Senior Jawon Pass returns as the presumptive starting quarterback, a standing that gained validity when sophomore Malik Cunningham suffered a knee injury over the weekend. The two split time last year, Pass looking like the more-polished product (and, really, his name is Pass) while Cunningham finished the season as the Cardinals’ leading rusher.
Perhaps Pass shrunk as the successor to Jackson, perhaps the wretched offensive line ruined his confidence, perhaps not all former U.S. Army All-Americans are made the same. Louisville is likely to find out in September, and if Pass again throws more interceptions than touchdowns, then the Cardinals may turn to Cunningham, as his injury is expected to be a minor “tweak.”
Satterfield would prefer to not lean on Pass’ passing. (I apologize for nothing.) Appalachian State ran on 67 percent of its plays in 2018, not an anomaly during Satterfield’s tenure. Attempting that at Louisville, however, would not lead to as much success, at least not immediately. The leading returning running back is sophomore Hassan Hall and his 303 yards on 70 rushes, a 4.3 yards per carry average.
One lineman will not be enough to solve these issues — and only six scholarship offensive linemen were available in the spring — but the Cardinals do have a possible first-round draft pick in junior left tackle Mekhi Becton, standing 6-foot-7 and listed at 369 pounds. As abysmal as this offense is, it will be a fan’s treat to watch any Irish defensive end try to get around Becton.
VanGorder really worked to outdo his disastrous 2016, and he succeeded. Louisville gave up 44.1 points per game, No. 128 of 130 FBS programs. The rush defense ranked No. 127. (Good luck, Bowling Green.)
The Cardinals will now run a 3-4 base defense, rather than VanGorder’s convoluted 4-2-5. Partly due to that change, and partly due to roster mismanagement, a dozen defensive players have reportedly shifted positions this offseason.
If there is a defensive strength, it is in a secondary with decent experience, led by junior defensive back Russ Yeast, a former Notre Dame recruiting target. Yeast has appeared in 23 games and could slide in as the starting safety replacing leading tackler Dee Smith.
Throughout this writing, it has been tough to resist writing, “Things cannot get worse for Louisville.” Because with one upset, they could. 2-10 would become 1-11, but that should hardly matter in Satterfield’s first year.
It is that kind of schedule, though. After the Irish visit on Labor Day, the Cardinals host Eastern Kentucky and then face Western Kentucky in Nashville. They got by the Hilltoppers by a field goal last season.
Louisville will not be favored in another game, all ACC opponents until the season closes at Kentucky. The Cardinals best chance at a third win may be Oct. 5 vs. Boston College, but the idea of Eagles star running back A.J. Dillon against this defense is not a thought prompting confidence in Louisville’s chances, let alone its odds of topping a season win total over/under of 3.5.