Louisville football: One thing the Cards must improve game one, and how they do it

Louisville football has to prove one thing above all else against WKU.

Well folks, after what felt like the single longest offseason in history, Louisville football is finally set to return to action Saturday against Western Kentucky.

It’s been nearly nine months since we’ve last seen the Cards in action, and tonight they are ready to finally put all the obstacles they’ve faced this offseason in the rear view mirror.

The hype surrounding reigning ACC Coach of the Year Scott Satterfield and his Louisville football program hasn’t reached a level of this magnitude since 2017 thanks to one of the more explosive offenses in the country.

Quarterback Malik Cunningham, running back Javian Hawkins, and receiver Tutu Atwell are all back after breakouts seasons in 2019; as are steady veterans Dez Fitzpatrick, Hassan Hall, and Marshon Ford. That’s what’s led to so many college football experts predicting Louisville to have a big season.

Hot: Three things Louisville football must do to beat WKU

If you’ve listened to any of the local or national talk about Louisville and what to expect in 2020, you’ve heard probably nothing but positive things about the offense over and over again. However, when it comes to the other side of ball, the discussion has been quite different. In fact, the majority of opinions on the defense have been negative, furthering the narrative that Louisville isn’t a team quite ready to compete for an ACC title.

As Louisville fans, we can argue each point made or get defensive because we know the obstacles the program has faced recently. However, what most analysts and experts are saying about the defense is true- Or at least rings true of last years team.

Quite frankly, Louisville’s defense still was pretty bad last season despite showing flashes of improvement. There were tons of bright spots, don’t get me wrong, but the biggest takeaway for everyone who played Louisville was that they were susceptible to giving up big plays and a lot of yardage on the ground.

I vowed to never talk about what happened in the final week of the 2019 season against Kentucky, but it’s the elephant in the room that will be come up early on in the season if the Cardinals cannot find a way to turn things around.

Watching the Kentucky’s run the football play after play, to the tune of 517 yards and 12.4 yards per rush, was devastating and a reminder of just how much work was left to do. There was something defeating about knowing what Kentucky was going to do and still not being able to do anything about it.

Kentucky wasn’t an anomaly either. That’s why tonight against a run-heavy team with two a dynamic quarterback and running back, proving they can stop the run is the most important thing for the Cards.

Western and Tyson Helton know that they’ll be facing a defense that is nearly identical from what was on the field in 2019. It’s the same group who gave up over 200-plus rushing yards in six occasions, including 259 to Boston College, 261 to Syracuse, 298 to Clem…okay you get it.

How Louisville football fixes the rush defense

So, how does Louisville football crack the code of stopping opposing players on the ground?

Many have argued that Louisville co-defensive coordinators Bryan Brown and Cort Dennison cannot implement their strategy effectively in power five football. Players doubted its impact at first, too.

Brown brought over a 3-4 defense that is predicated on speed, excellent technique, and solid gap assignments. He uses smaller, quicker players at linebacker and on the edge to make this happen. However, his strategy has detractors. Many speculated last year that the Cardinals struggled against teams like Clemson, Florida State, Miami, and Kentucky because of their sheer size and athleticism in the trenches.

Former Louisville defensive tackle G.G. Robinson, a player who knows a thing or two about the inner-workings of Brown’s defense wholeheartedly disagrees with this notion.

Robinson joined the Big Red Louie podcast to go over what could make the Louisville defense special in 2020, and why it often failed in 2019.

“I personally don’t think it’s the size or the depth,” Robinson told BRL. “When you turn on the film and look at it, people are not doing their job, like, not executing. People are jumping out of their gaps. On every single play, I’m almost positive, on the defense, we’re gapped out.
“This person should be in this gap, this person should be in this gap. I was personally guilty of this. If I’m in this A gap, and I see I can make a play in the other A gap I’m jumping out of it. That’s not my play to make.

“….Nobody was blowing each other off the ball against bigger competition. It was just wide open holes. Why is that happening? People are out of their gap.”

If Robinson is correct, this could mean a big-time shift in momentum on defense in 2020. Bear in mind that the coaching staff had to overhaul a culture, completely re-teach a playbook, completely reshuffle a roster to fit their schemes, and teach new skills and techniques last offseason.

Robinson mentioned that even though he had four defensive coordinators in five years, the transition to Brown and Dennison’s scheme was the most difficult. The previous defensive coordinators were new faces, but they ran very similar defenses. Satterfield and Brown completely uprooted everything that the players knew, teaching them new ways to stand, to get off the ball, new places to line up, new gaps to cover.

Given everything that transpired last offseason and the lack of depth overall across the Louisville defense, the fact that the Cardinals showed improvement in year one under a new coaching staff is a miracle.

In year two, things could start to get interesting. Given the coaching continuity and Louisville’s new additions across the defense like Ja’Darien Boykin, Yaya Diaby, and Tre Clark, the Cardinals could be in line for a big-time step up.

That all starts on Saturday. The Cardinals must sell-out on the front seven to stop the run against a Western Kentucky team build to keep it on the ground.

Louisville needs to send the message loud and clear that you might be able to move the ball, but it’s not going to be done easily in the running game.

If the Cardinals can do that, it changes the entire dynamic of the season going forward.