From the Top to the Bottom – The Fall of Louisville Football
by Rick Bouch Scores & Statson
It’s hard to believe that just two college football seasons ago Louisville was on the map as one of the nation’s marquee programs. The Cardinals had the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner, the dynamic Lamar Jackson who passed for 3,543 yards and ran for 1,571 more. He totaled 51 touchdowns as Louisville flirted with the College Football Playoff before finishing the season 9-4.
Less than two weeks ago, head coach Bobby Petrino, who was in his second stint at the university, was fired. After starting the season 2-1, the Cardinals haven’t won since. They are the only team in the ACC without a conference victory. Oh, and their defense gives up 43 points a game. What happened?
The Beginning In 2015, Petrino’s second season of his second tour, Louisville looked like it was turning the corner. A freshman quarterback (Jackson) was inserted into the lineup later in the season and helped guide the Cardinals to eight wins in the team’s final ten games. The season ended with a 27-21 win over Texas A&M in the Music City Bowl. It was a great way to cap an 8-5 season.
With the experienced Jackson now a sophomore, the offense was opened up some to take advantage of his skill set in 2016. Jackson passed and ran all over everyone but Clemson in the Cardinals first ten games. Louisville was ranked No. 5 in the nation at 9-1 and was hoping to crash the College Football Playoff Top 4.
The Beginning of the End In mid-November two years ago, the Cardinals traveled to Houston to take on the Cougars on a Thursday night. Then-Houston head coach Tom Herman and the Cougars held Jackson in check and beat the Cardinals handily 36-10. The loss ruined any hopes of a CFP berth. It also marked the beginning of the end for Petrino and Louisville.
The Cardinals would go on to lose their rivalry game with Kentucky the following week and they were embarrassed by LSU in the Citrus Bowl. The Tigers held Jackson and the offense to just nine points in a 29-9 win. Louisville lost its last three games of the season to finish 9-4.
The Issues There were glaring issues with the program that Petrino either just didn’t want to fix or figured that he couldn’t fix. One of the problems was the offensive line. If not for Jackson’s athleticism, Louisville would likely have not won nine games in 2016. Jackson won the Heisman that year but was sacked an almost unthinkable 47 times. The defense gave up 23.8 points per game. Not horrible, but certainly something that could be addressed.
Petrino was forced to address the defense when coordinator Todd Grantham, who reportedly had several run-ins with Petrino, up and left for Mississippi State after the season. In his place, Petrino hired Peter Sirmon, who ironically served the previous season at Mississippi State. The problem with the hire was that Sirmon directed a defense in Starkville that ranked 103rd in the nation. Sirmon lasted just one season and prior to his year, Petrino hired Brian Van Gorder, a guy who had been fired midseason by Brian Kelly at Notre Dame.
The issues have been there from the beginning and now have manifested because there is no superstar like Jackson on board. The Cardinals running game is barely average. Quarterback Malik Cunningham, who has only played in six games, is the team’s leading rusher with 408 yards. The offense scores just 20.6 points per game and the defense has given up 50 or more points six times.
The End Hopefully, Louisville can find the right candidate to restore the program. The Cardinals are just 2-9 and will finish the season with No. 17 Kentucky this weekend. Win or lose, Louisville will finish with its worst record since 1997 when the Cardinals went 1-10 under Ron Cooper.