We are lucky here at Black & Gold Banneret to have a vast network of bloggers and reporters from other SB Nation sites to call upon for their insight, and Louisville is no exception. Card Chronicle does excellent work covering Louisville, and joining us this week is John Powell — @CardinalStrong on Twitter — to answer five key questions about the Cards coming into Friday night.
Louisville is currently 0-1 after a 31-7 thrashing in the (stadium formerly known as the) Carrier Dome at the hands of Syracuse.
Off we go:
1. What the hell was that last week?
As you might imagine many Louisville fans had the same question on Saturday night, Sunday morning, Sunday afternoon, Sunday evening, Monday morn-...you get the point. But fortunately, our staff had all the answers lined up on the Tuesday presser. Evidently, the issues were just lack of energy, lack of execution, missed tackles, and only getting four possessions in the first half. Soooo…nothing really to worry about.
If my sarcasm wasn’t heavy enough above, it’s Thursday as I type this and shockingly those answers did not appease the fanbase all week. How do you come out with low energy in Week 1? How do you not execute a game plan you put together with multiple weeks of prep? The missed tackles are a carryover concern from seasons past so frustrating but not surprising, but the four-possession comment really bothered me. It was basically giving teams a game plan to slow it down on you because the staff and team need a few drives to get warmed up or something. Yeah, coach, not breaking news that it would be easier to score if you had 7-8 attempts in the half instead of 4, but that can’t be the excuse moving forward. If you gave me 10 opportunities to predict how that game would have played out ‘maybe’ one of them would have included a 15-point loss…maybe….but a team you have rolled by a point total of 71-3 the last two years should not have flipped the script that quickly in just 10 months. Either they got really good, really fast, or you have regressed. While I do think Syracuse improved, my money is on the latter and that is a huge problem for a coach who is in a “prove it” season. All right…your readers are now falling asleep, but I feel a touch better getting that out. Let’s move on.
2. Malik Cunningham absolutely wrecked us last year. What’s the outlook on him in 2022?
I’m a Malik guy. I feel like he has fallen under the “guy after Lamar” curse in seasons past with folks trying to constantly compare the two because they have a similar style of play, so he is viewed through the lens of what Lamar would have done or could have done. That’s not really fair to him or the team, but that doesn’t mean his game is perfect. During his career, he’s been a bit up and down with hanging onto the football and last week was not his best effort with 2 INTs and 2 fumbles (one lost, one recovered). Turnovers are not only drive killers but momentum killers and those really hurt last week, occurring in critical times of the game.
While I do think he’ll turn it around, my big concern was that all offseason they prevented him from running to try and develop his pocket presence and going through his progressions to find his checkdowns. The result of that experiment in week one? On 13 rushing attempts he only had 34 yards for a 2.62-yard average, his worst per attempt average since the 2020 season. Maybe some of it was the 3-3-5 Syracuse runs but I’m hoping we didn’t hamper one of the biggest weapons Malik has in his bag while trying to develop something else. It’s like telling a magician he can’t practice his ‘rabbit out of the hat’ trick all summer and then wonder why he couldn’t do it on the big stage opening night. We were in desperate need of the ‘rabbit’ last week and it never showed up. I think Malik will be fine, but we need to see him be an All-ACC type QB against top competition and not just against average teams.
3. Was last year’s game more thrilling than 2013’s game was heartbreaking for Louisville fans?
Personally, last season’s game was a really bright spot in what has been an ongoing series of non-bright spots for the Louisville program of late. It was like finding a $20 bill in your jeans pocket as you were getting evicted from your house. It was nice to celebrate, but overall things are still not going well. If we were still winning 8-9 games consistently that’s a great game/story but it’s not going down in the history of the program.
The 2013 game on the other hand…crushed me. Cards coming off a Sugar Bowl season, looking to go to back-to-back BCS Bowls with a “slim” shot at competing for a championship, and we all knew there were only 3-4 games that could trip them up. Going up big early never puts me at ease, but something about that team and that night I had a brief sense of confidence, then I didn’t. It was like it was happening in slow motion and there was no amount of timeouts or adjustments that was going to slow Bortles & Company. It was easier to digest when the season was over and you saw a 12-1 record with a win over Miami in the bowl game, but brutal to watch that night. I’d trade the pick-six last year for the 2013 win every single time.
4. What’s Louisville’s biggest strength and weakness on defense?
Let’s knock out the strength first. This year the staff made a concerted effort to go and get talent from the transfer portal and from traditional recruiting methods on that side of the ball to address their lack of depth at key positions. Getting a few transfers to help in the secondary (MJ Griffin, Jarvis Brownlee, Quincey Riley) along with some experience in the middle at linebacker (Momo Sanogo — Ole Miss) and at a key position along the line at nose tackle (Jermayne Lole — Arizona St) really lifted spirits during the summer as those were all positions that had deficiencies and the staff addressed them appropriately.
The flipside of course is that what we thought was (maybe still is)some high-level talent didn’t really show out last Saturday and looked just as out of place as the guys who have been here for years. I’ll hold judgment after a single game, but the new guys seem to have fallen victim to what we saw in 2021, 2020, and 2019. At some point we just have to say, “This is what it is” and accept the flaws or change coaches. Poor positioning, deep drops on the outside, poor tackling, and play calling are probably 1A-1D on the list of frustrations, and I have a tough time seeing any of those change soon.
5. Give us your prediction: How’s this one play out?
Full disclosure, I predicted a 7-5 season for the Cards before last week, and in that prediction I had this one as a loss because of the environment, the talent on the other side of the ball, and the trap of overlooking a team you beat last season after rolling Syracuse and then getting FSU as the home opener. While most of those are still applicable, I just can’t see how Louisville would come out flat again after the beating they took on the field and during the week. I think if the team that showed up last Saturday shows up Friday night it could get ugly, but I believe we see a more inspired Louisville team and another tight one like we had in 2021.
A late Louisville score gives them the lead but the defense allows a UCF response with little time remaining. ‘Operation Payback’ is fully executed for the Knights. UCF 31, Louisville 28. The following four weeks in Louisville determine who is leading the team next season.