Eight Weeks In: Louisville football

By on October 20, 2014

After a 30-18 victory over N.C. State on Saturday, Louisville (6-2) heads into a bye week bowl eligible, with two thirds of the season complete.

Coming into the season, the Cardinal offense was an expected strength with the return of offensive mastermind Bobby Petrino paired with an impressive spring game by quarterback Will Gardner.

So far, the offense and quarterback play have both been inconsistent. Through eight games, Louisville is averaging 30.9 points per game and a pedestrian 370 yards of total offense.

Petrino’s potentially pass heavy offense hasn’t been able to generate chunks of yards through the air this season, averaging just 226 passing yards per game.

Gardner and freshman Reggie Bonnafon have shared time at quarterback, but both have fought through growing pains.

Against N.C. State, Gardner completed 21 of 36 passes for 203 yards and two touchdowns.

Petrino was pleased with Gardner’s performance on Saturday. The sophomore’s completion percentage sits at 57.3 percent and he has an impressive 11:2 touchdown to interception ratio.

“He did some real good things. He got us in the end zone – particularly right before the half, which was great to see,” Petrino said. “We left a few out there. I think we missed a couple early where we had chances for big plays or touchdowns. But he was good on the sidelines and he did a good job of being into the game.”

After Gardner’s knee injury against Florida International University, Bonnafon started three consecutive games, but was replaced by Gardner in the second half at Clemson.

Bonnafon helped to lead the Cardinals to two conference victories against Wake Forest and Syracuse. The freshman has thrown for 593 yards and two touchdowns while completing 54 percent of his passes.

He appeared several times against N.C. State in a power run package, rushing for 13 yards on two carries.

The quarterbacks will have their top target back with the return of DeVante Parker. The senior wide receiver broke a bone in his foot two weeks before the start of the regular season and has been working his way back ever since.

In his season debut, Parker tied his career high of nine receptions good for 132 yards.

“It obviously makes us a lot better. When you get one-on-one coverage, and you’ve got a guy that everyone believes in. And he’ll win and catch the ball,” Petrino said.

“When I talk to him he says he’s good and that he is ready to go. He had over 100 yards tonight so he’s getting there,” Gardner said. “I expect to see bigger things in the future.”

With the inconsistent quarterback play, the offense has relied on a strong stable of running backs to carry the workload.

Michael Dyer ran for 173 yards on 24 carries against N.C. State, the fourth Cardinal ball carrier to reach the 100-yard mark in a game this season.

Dominique Brown ran for 143 yards against Miami and then L.J. Scott followed it up with 126 yards the next week against Murray State. Brandon Radcliff proved to be a workhorse against Wake Forest and Syracuse, rushing for 129 and 110 yards respectively.

“I think the thing I’ve always felt about college football is the running backs are the guys that take all the hits and they’re the guys that get nicked up and you need to have a good stable of them,” Petrino said. “Brandon Radcliff – he couldn’t go in the second half. He’s been battling a turf toe and it really got sore so he couldn’t even go back in there of kickoff return in the second half.

“L.J.’s battled an ankle. Dom’s battled an ankle. So you’ve just got to keep working them. They understand that they go to practice, practice hard and, if they get hot, we’re going to give them the ball.”

Despite returning 121 career starts on the offensive line, the unit has struggled at times during the year, pre-snap penalties and miscommunications have plagued the line throughout the season.

Though all the blame cannot be placed on the offensive line, Louisville quarterbacks have already been sacked 26 times through eight games this year, totaling last season’s amount over a 13 game schedule.

Different players have been shuffled to different spots during the year while a few new faces have debuted too.

Jake Smith, John Miller and Jamon Brown have started every game this season, but Ryan Mack, Skylar Lacy, Aaron Epps and Tobiah Hughley have also started alongside of them.

Epps made his first career start Saturday against N.C. State.

“I was excited for Aaron (Epps). He’s worked extremely hard. I think he did a good job when you look at the way we protected the quarterback for the most part, and we got our running game going better,” Petrino said. “He’s a guy that works extremely hard in practices. Always has a positive attitude, and it’s good to see him come in and have success.”

Heading into the final four games, Petrino admits the offense still needs to improve to give the team a chance to win tough games.

“We’re just a work in progress. We’re trying to get where we’re better. It’s fun to see us be better out there and feel more comfortable with mixing things up and calling plays and doing that,” Petrino said. “But we still have a long way to go to get where we need to be.”

With the offensive’s struggles, the Cardinal defense has carried the team through the first eight games.

Todd Grantham’s 3-4 defensive scheme has frustrated opposing offenses and vaulted Louisville to a nationally ranked defense.

The defense is holding teams to 14.6 points per game and went 17 quarters without allowing an offensive touchdown.

The run defense has been phenomenal, holding opponents to just 68.8 yards per game and 2.3 yards per carry.

Lorenzo Mauldin, the face of the Cardinal defense has not disappointed after deciding to return for his senior year. Moving to linebacker, Mauldin has shown his versatility while remaining productive. Through eight games, he has six sacks, 11.5 tackles for a loss and 35 total tackles.

Linebackers Keith Kelsey and James Burgess sit first and third on the team in tackles respectively. The two have combined for 95 tackles, six sacks and 12 tackles for a loss.

Going into the year, the secondary was the biggest concern, but now, Louisville has one of the best back-ends in the country.

Red-shirt sophomore safety, Gerod Holliman, leads the nation with eight interceptions to go along with his 24 tackles.

“As long as I know Hollman is behind me, it just gives me more comfort. Some plays I just tell him to back me up and as my teammate he respects that standpoint and what I can bring to the game,” junior cornerback Charles Gaines said. “He tells me to do my thing, and we both make plays. I love what he’s doing.”

James Sample, a transfer from Washington, is the team’s second leading tackler with 47 tackles. The junior safety also has three interceptions.

“James (Sample) is a good player. He’s a good football player, and we’re really happy that he’s here. I think he got here in the last part of July. And since he’s been here, his maturity, the way he learns and studies is something you don’t see out of a guy that just gets here,” Petrino said. “I think he made a huge difference in our defense the minute he walked in the door just because of the way he approached the meetings and approached practice, and how quickly he learned. But he can run and tackle, and he does a good job of playing the ball.”

With the return of safety Jermaine Reve, who missed all of spring and summer workouts with a torn ACL, Terrell Floyd can move back to cornerback and play the position alongside of Gaines.

The defense will be tested in the final weeks of the season against proven quarterbacks like Jameis Winston and Everett Golson.

Special teams have had their setbacks throughout the year, including a dropped punt by James Quick late in the fourth quarter against Virginia and also allowing a punt return touchdown after the opening series at Clemson.

Eli Rogers returned a punt 47 yards against N.C. State and Quick had a 24-yard return early in the year.

Corvin Lamb, who recently tore his ACL and will miss the remainder of the year returned a kick 97 yards for a touchdown against Miami in the opening week.

John Wallace has connected on 11 of 14 field goals, including a career long of 51 yards against Syracuse.

Louisville will face the meat of their schedule in the final four games, facing Florida State at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium October 30, then their final conference game of the year with a road trip to Boston College, followed by a game at Notre Dame after a bye week. The season comes to a close at home against rival Kentucky on Thanksgiving weekend.

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