This space has admittedly been harsh in its assessments of No. 9 Notre Dame’s season-opening opponent. In an attempt to be fair to Louisville, let’s pepper Mark Ennis with some questions. Mark serves as the publisher at CardinalSports.com.
DF: Mark, I appreciate you taking some time to talk Louisville football. Our long wait is over, the season is finally here. For our two fanbases, though, we have to wait two extra days. Not fair, is it?
ME: It’s kind of crazy that Florida and Miami can play their first game 10 days before Louisville and Notre Dame play theirs. But more than anything, the desire to wash the taste of 2-10 and a historically bad season from the collective mouths of Louisville fans makes the extra couple of days wait especially excruciating.
Before I dive in, how long have you been covering the Cardinals? Last year had to represent a different experience, watching Louisville finish on a nine-game losing streak to record its worst season in more than two decades, back to the Cardinals’ Conference USA days.
This will be my 10th year covering Louisville in some capacity. Either running my own independent website or doing pregame and postgame radio for Louisville football and basketball, I’ve been covering the team for one outlet or another since 2009.
To say that last season gave Cardinals fans whiplash would be the mother of all understatements. Even those level-headed observers who expected a dip in the team with the loss of Lamar Jackson never dreamed the team would simply crater and get Bobby Petrino fired. Looking back at every publication, I think the worst preseason prediction for Louisville was Athlon at 6-6. Nobody saw last year coming.
Let’s start there — Falling to 2-10, giving up 44.1 points per game, scoring only 19.8 points per game … Was Louisville that bad, or did the team so severely quit on Bobby Petrino, it only seemed that bad? What is the talent level on the current roster?
I’m firmly convinced there is, objectively, talent on the roster. There are a number of players Louisville will trot out Monday night that Notre Dame offered or even visited South Bend in the recruiting process. The problem for Louisville is the talent is clustered in positions leaving an unbalanced roster, making the team dangerously thin in places like offensive and defensive line as well as at tight end, a position of great importance in Scott Satterfield’s offense.
Last year was the perfect storm: the perfectly understandable dropoff most non-blue bloods experience with players of Lamar Jackson and cornerback Jaire Alexander’s caliber leaving the program combined with the institutional rot coming from being led by one of college football’s all-time sociopaths in Bobby Petrino. Mix all of that together with some bad injury luck, an incompetent coaching staff and a very difficult schedule, and you get Louisville football in 2018.
Defensively, Notre Dame fans are familiar with what Brian VanGorder can wreck. They are also familiar with how quickly things can be redeemed once his fingerprints are wiped clean. Can the Cardinals’ defense bounce back that quickly, or did the issues go beyond VanGorder’s scheme?
It would be a mistake to say the issues in 2018 were purely scheme-based, purely talent-based, or purely motivation-based. It was everything. The Louisville defense looked like it was designed and taught by a career dead-ender working as an analyst for Mike Gundy. Because that’s what it was. It looked like it lacked a pass rush because it was manned by inexperienced players playing out of position on the defensive line. Because that’s what it was. And it looked like a defense playing at all three levels without even an ounce of motivation. Because that’s what it was. It was everything, not one thing.
Obviously, all this led to the hiring of Scott Satterfield. This is more a question sparked by my own curiosity, but how has he been embraced? He was not the first choice, but he was the natural one once Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm spurned his alma mater. Has Louisville shaken off that shot at its pride and recognized what looks to have been a good hire?
I don’t believe there was a very long hangover after Jeff Brohm turned the job down. Satterfield has done a very good job of winning over the large majority of fans by a collection of things. (Nobody ever has universal support.) One, people are moved by his willingness to leave his alma mater and home to take the Cardinals job. It is endearing in a way identical to that of Chris Mack, who left his own alma mater, Xavier, in a similar way to help resurrect a troubled program. Second, Satterfield himself has been visible and accessible both on the field and to the players as a whole. He has gotten elbows deep in the muck with the players to help begin the process of fixing what was wrong the past couple of years with a head coach who wanted nothing to do with the outside world. Third, I think he’s won people over with relentless honesty and consistency with a commitment to a long-term plan that has already borne fruit once over his tenure at Appalachian State.
Facing a head coach in his first game at a new gig presents certain difficulties for the opposing coordinators, particularly defensively. Last week Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea said he has tried to study a bounty of Appalachian State film, as well as some of North Carolina State’s from the last few years, where Cardinals new offensive coordinator Dwayne Ledford was the offensive line coach the last three seasons. “You can kind of meld it all together and really hold to those challenging parts and pieces and make sure you rep it 100 times, and hope somehow you’ve surrounded the bullseye,” Lea said. How much of his system from Appalachian State has Satterfield brought?
Satterfield has brought pretty much the entire Appalachian State attack with him. I say that because it’s a pretty simple attack. Satterfield is a proponent of running inside zone, outside zone, play-action passing, bootlegs and all of the constraint plays you’d run off of that (reverses, jet sweeps, option, read-option, etc). The key is they do it from so many different formations and looks that you just can’t predict what’s coming. The Cardinals might not get every conceivable detail in place by Notre Dame, but there’s a simplicity to Satterfield’s offense that allows for a large part of it to be implemented easily.
Back with the Mountaineers, Satterfield ran and ran and ran. Can his current offense do so effectively after averaging just 142 rushing yards per game a year ago and now replacing three offensive linemen?
I think they can. Satterfield has been consistent that he feels Hassan Hall, Javian Hawkins and Dae Williams are more than an adequate running back group to do everything he likes to on the ground. We just haven’t seen them do it yet. Louisville hasn’t been led in rushing by a running back since 2015. Quarterbacks Lamar Jackson and last year Malik Cunningham tended to absorb many of the carries and rushing yards that would have fallen to the backs. Also, Louisville was sacked often and played from hilarious deficits for most of last season. There just weren’t many opportunities to line up and pound the ball last year.
Whether Louisville can run or not, it may have to. Pro Football Focus considers Cardinals junior quarterback Jawon Pass the No. 128 starting quarterback in the country, out of 130. Maybe that’s a bit harsh, but he did complete only 54.0 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns against 12 interceptions last year. Is Pass as rough as that ranking and those stats suggest?
Pass is the ultimate test for just how much of last year’s issues were issues with the talent, and just how much was issues with the players psychologically and how they dealt with and were dealt with by an inferior, retreating coaching staff. All you need to know about the coaching Pass received is that Bobby and Nick Petrino’s treatment of the quarterbacks last year was so bad that Jordan Travis was granted immediate eligibility at Florida State. Pass is physically impressive, his mechanics are improved in the times we’ve been able to see him in action and his overall demeanor is much more elevated than at any point a year ago. Do I ever think he’s going to be an all-ACC caliber quarterback? No, he’s always going to be a little erratic, but I do expect improvement as he’s simply being coached, taught better and asked to do things he’s better at this year.
The differing trend lines of these two teams from a year ago make Labor Day look like an expected blowout. What do you anticipate?
I would not be shocked if Louisville, based almost entirely on emotion and newness, was able to slow the game down and keep it respectable for a half or maybe into the third quarter. Even with overmatched teams, Satterfield has a history of keeping these games within reach for at least a while. But Notre Dame should be able to pull away and win something like 38-13.