It’s hard to believe the college football season is finally here, isn’t it?
Your Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team has had a long wait since its 30-3 shellacking in the Cotton Bowl against the Clemson Tigers, but now it’s finally time for Ian Book and the boys to return to the gridiron.
In a Labor Day evening match-up on the road, ND will square off against the Louisville Cardinals, who went 2-10 in a 2018 season where they actually, honest-to-God, employed Brian VanGorder as defensive coordinator. Now, with a new staff under first-year coach Scott Satterfield, the Cardinals look to start off that regime with a bang by upsetting a top-10 Irish squad at home.
As someone who did not watch a second of Louisville football last season, I know next-to-nothing about their team, and so I spoke to “CardinalStrong” over at Card Chronicle to understand how UL fans feel about Satterfield, if the Cardinals defense might be at all improved this year, which head coach would win in a karaoke contest, and much, much more info you’ll want to arm yourselves with heading into the long weekend.
So, let’s dive right in and see what he’s got for us!
1. I think you’d agree with me that 2018 was a rough year to be a Cardinals fan — dealing with the loss of Lamar Jackson, going 2-10, having to deal with Brian VanGorder as defensive coordinator (we know your pain). What is the general feeling around the program heading into 2019? Is there reason for optimism?
CardinalStrong: Pat, you ever have someone apply scorching hot melted wax to you inner thigh, press a nice big sheet of 150 grit sandpaper on top, let that dry up nice and hard, and then rip it off with the ferocity of a Brian Kelly sideline explosion? Me, either. But I would imagine that discomfort would parallel to the discomfort Cardinals fans experienced last season.
To say 2018 was a disappointment would be an insult to the word ‘disappointment’ by association alone. Louisville went from a playoff contender in 2016, to a decent team in 2017, to a downright embarrassment last year. If you want to blame BVG for fielding one of the worst defenses in school history, go right ahead, I won’t stop you. In fact, if the ND fans who make the trip want to share a cold drink at the tailgate to celebrate the departure of BVG from our programs I’m sure you’ll have a no shortage of takers.
Plenty of fans got reamed for saying the players quit halfway during the season last year but in the last few months those same players have been pretty open about ‘lacking motivation’ as the season came to a close. I’ve been watching Louisville football for quite some time and while one may argue they have fielded worse teams in the last three decades I don’t think the gap between expectations and reality had ever been that wide.
Heading into 2019 there is certainly optimism around the future of the program but I do believe most fans realize it’s a process and not an immediate fix. Roster imbalance, lacking fundamentals, players that don’t fit the new system…it all takes time to get going. I made an official prediction last week of five wins and I’m fairly certain that is on the high side of the majority of the fan base. The new staff has certainly brought back some of the enthusiasm, now they just have to deliver on it.
2. You might have touched on new coach Scott Satterfield in the above question, but tell me more about what you think he brings to the table and what you think of the assistants he brought in — is this a group that can get Louisville back to being an ACC title contender?
CardinalStrong: Short answer, yes. Longer answer, it may be 3-5 years before we see it.
Coach Satterfield has brought over quite a few guys from his previous staff at Appalachian State (DC: Bryan Brown, QB: Frank Ponce, DL: Mark Ivey, LB: Dale Jones, etc), but he also went and got some really good coaches from other programs to not only help in areas he knew the Cards needed a boost, but because he knew they fit into the culture he is trying to build. Grabbing an O-line coach like Dwayne Ledford from NC State was huge for that group, and he will have some experienced guys playing much better without question. Getting Cort Dennison back to Louisville from Oregon was big from a coaching standpoint and a recruiting standpoint, as he was one of the ‘Top 30 under 30’ a couple seasons ago. Satterfield also grabbed a great wideout coach in Gunter Brewer (Eagles), and an up and comer to coach the running backs (McKenzie).
From Day 1 they have all bought in to the family and player focused culture shift Satterfield set forth, which as one may imagine was quite a change from what Petrino was doing. It’s easy to say before they ever play a snap, but I love the staff Satterfield put together and think they can absolutely take Louisville back to where they were just a few seasons ago. Patience will be key.
3. Let’s talk about aptly-named QB Jawon Pass, who was a prospect the Irish themselves pursued for a while during the recruiting process. What does he do well, and what can the Irish do/take advantage of in order to shut him down?
CardinalStrong: Jawon ‘Puma’ Pass was recruited by just about every Power 5 school east of the Golden Dome. He was a stud in high school and has the measurables (6-4/239) to play well at the next level, if he can get there. Pass can throw the deep ball okay, and can scoot pretty well outside the pocket for a big man.
The issue last year was consistency and confidence. Petrino was pulling QBs at the drop of a hat last season, so no one could get comfortable and they felt like any mistake was going to land them on the sidelines with a clipboard. Petrino spent the whole summer hyping up Pass and then bailed on him before the band was finished playing the intro at the first home game. Pass struggled to regain any type of momentum and you could tell he was a shadow of what we had seen in limited time the season prior.
A more simplified offense from Satterfield and a larger focus on the run game should hopefully allow for more space in the secondary and more opportunities for him to get in a rhythm. He’s still the same guy that Notre Dame, Alabama, Auburn, and a host of others wanted just a few seasons ago, he just needs to get back there mentally.
4. Who are the main offensive weapons Pass has to work with that Irish fans should be concerned about? Also, how is the Cardinals offensive line looking this year — do you think they can handle ND’s veteran pass rushing attack at defensive end?
CardinalStrong: If there is one group Louisville has that I would stack up with any other ACC squad, it’s their wideouts. Bobby Petrino loved wideouts like he loved…well, never mind.
The man went and got some great players the last four years at wideout, and even converted some ‘athletes’ to the position just for good measure. The Cards have at least two players who I think can play on Sundays in Dez Fitzpatrick (6-2/204) and Seth Dawkins (6-3/218). Dez is the true #1 in my brain, but both can do damage.
Both of these guys will play on the outside the majority of the game, but out of the slot the Cards have another 2-3 weapons in Tutu Atwell (5-9/153) and Josh Johnson (5-11/187). The sad thing is I could list another couple guys that I really like as well, they just so happen to be buried on the depth chart. If Pass can get these guys the ball, they can cause problems for sure.
The O-line play last year was rough. But as I referenced above, bringing in Ledford will help with technique, and getting the best guy in the right position. The Cards brought in a Florida transfer in TJ McCoy who will likely get reps at center, and still have one of the better left tackles in the ACC in Mekhi Becton (6-7/369). I’m not so naïve to think all issues will be fixed, but things will be much better than 2018.
ND has some ‘dudes’ up front that I imagine will get some pressure on Pass but I’d have to think Satterfeild will have some quick hitters in his back pocket at all times for Pass to dump to when possible. If the Cards can hold those ND ends under 3 sacks on Monday night, I say mission accomplished.
5. Considering Louisville’s ROUGH year on defense in 2018, where are the strengths and weaknesses of the Cardinals defense heading into 2019?
CardinalStrong: I’m not a violent person, Pat. Got a beautiful wife, a few kids at home, and I respect my fellow man like few others. With that said, I may be forced to gut punch Brian VanGorder if I ever saw him in public. Inevitably, he would likely beat the snot out of me afterwards — unless of course I pretended to be a quarterback, because he proved last year he had no desire to touch any of them for twelve games straight.
The Louisville defense last year in multiple categories was not only the worst Power 5 school in the country but also the worst school overall in the country (i.e 130th, i.e. no one sucked worse, i.e. holy crap they stink).
So what’s different? First of all, a new coordinator in Bryan Brown, who at App State finished the 2018 season 6th in the country in total defense (288yd/g), 5th in the country in passing defense (162.1yd/g), and 4th in the country in scoring defense (15.5pt/g). He wasn’t playing around. Secondly, the new scheme he brings in (3-4 front) is actually a decent fit for some of the guys on the current roster, transitioning them to new roles that may result in more efficient play and let the best eleven guys see the field.
The front seven is respectable in my opinion. They certainly have some depth issues but the first line can play with everyone on their schedule. I still have reservations with the secondary, not only due to personnel but because they just haven’t been tested that much. When teams got up by 20-30 points last year they ran, ran, ran, and the corners and safeties were just counting steps on their Fitbit for the last couple quarters. They have some talent, but I need to see them perform to feel good moving forward.
6. Who are the X-factors on defense that NEED to bring their A-game in order for the Cardinals to have a chance at shutting down Ian Book and the Irish?
CardinalStrong: With the new scheme I referenced above (3-4), I think we have a handful of guys who will excel in their new roles. One of those players is GG Robinson, who played a lot of defensive tackle the last few years but will now slide into the nose tackle spot; something I think fits him well. He is agile enough to fill both gaps and has enough push to take on the center, which is typically a lesser challenge than a guard or tackle.
Also, adding an additional linebacker into the mix in my opinion will help because even though the depth at that spot is thin, the guys on the top line are very impressive (Etheridge, Avery, Burns, Whitlow) and can create ‘havoc.’ Rodjay Burns will play what they call the ‘Card’ position, which is a hybrid LB/DE of sorts. He’ll be asked to do a lot, but moving down from corner into this new role will help in that transition.
7. How is Louisville’s special teams looking this year — kicking/punting/returning-wise, are there any game-changers for the Cardinals?
CardinalStrong: While they haven’t returned my phone calls “per se,” I am the unofficial president of the Louisville special teams’ fan club. They call themselves ‘The Regulators’ due to the striking resemblance of kicker Blanton Creque to rapper Warren G, and punter Mason King to rapper Dr. Dre. Uncanny really.
The truth of the matter is both of these guys have a knack for putting a beautiful foot (easy, Rex Ryan) on the ball. Mason King will likely end his career with the longest punt average in Louisville history (42yd+/att), and Blanton will likely go down as the most accurate field goal kicker in the history of the program (84%). They good.
Throw in a long snapper so good they gave him a scholarship (Hall) and a punt returner in Rodjay Burns who took one to the house last year and averaged 15.15yds/ret, good enough for third nationally. This unit has the talent to impact games for sure, they just have to be put in a position to do so.
8. Looking at this ND team, which players, if any, scare you the most?
CardinalStrong: Julian Okwara. When he comes on the TV I shield my son’s eyes for fear that he may witness a death. This young man seemingly came out of nowhere last year and he made a big impact. Unless he stopped hitting the gym and decided he was just going to pound down Popeye’s Chicken Sandwiches the last few weeks, I’ll bank on the fact that’s he still pretty good at what he does, and the Louisville H-back may need smelling salts at the ready.
9. Notre Dame has a sophomore RB named C’Borius Flemister. What are the best/funniest/most ridiculous names on the Louisville roster, and do any of them measure up to my guy C’Bo?
CardinalStrong: Woah, woah woah. Taking shots at people’s names? Not sure how you folks over at ‘One Foot Down’ operate, but ‘round my parts we put some respect on our guys’ names.
For example, I’d never recommend Thurman Geathers, Brandon Wellington, and Telly Plummer start an all English boy band, that would be rude. I’d also never tell Boosie Whitlow that his name is somewhat unconventional by modern day standards, just not cut like that.
10. Karaoke battle between Brian Kelly and Scott Satterfield — what song(s) does each coach sing, who has the better stage presence and charisma, and who ultimately wins?
CardinalStrong: We’ve all seen Brian Kelly act like a lunatic on the sidelines right? The guy screams more than Neve Campbell in the 90s. I feel like those laid back pressers are all a cover and the real Kelly comes out when the lights shine the brightest. I think Brian pulls out some old Linkin Park and drops ‘In The End’ on a stunned crowd. He gets to scream, he gets to sing, and he gets to lay out a retrospective on his career…”I tried so hard and got so far, but in the end, it doesn’t even matter”.
Satterfield likely follows with a smile and a “How y’all doing tonight?” before picking literally any Kenny Chesney song you’ve ever heard, and finishes with a “preciate y’all listening.”
Kelly gets the nod, some due to talent, mostly due to fear.
11. Prediction time: give me the final score, who wins, and your reasoning why.
CardinalStrong: Pat, you and me go way back. Feels like I’ve known you for at least 9-10 questions now. Can I be up front with you? I really don’t like Notre Dame all that much. No disrespect to you or your readers, but as a college football fan for quite some time now I grew up watching NBC treat Notre Dame like they hung the moon, I’ve observed the “we don’t need to join a football conference” elitism, and up until the last few seasons they weren’t really winning that much. I thought they got way more hype than they deserved and it bugged me as a fan of the sport. Wait, what was the question? Oh yeah, this game. Even though Louisville owns the series and has never lost to Notre Dame in the history of the sport (look it up, nerds) I think the Fighting Irish have the edge in nearly every position group on both sides of the ball with maybe a couple exceptions. That to me translates to an uphill battle for Louisville.
I believe the the new staff, the new system, and the new level of energy will translate to a competitive first half where we see a score differential of 7-10 points. As depth becomes apparent I think ND starts to pull away and creates some separation with Ian book picking on the secondary some as the legs get heavy.
I’lll say Cards get the cover and walk out with a 35-17 loss. Something for them to build on, and Notre Dame keeps their hopes for another CFP trip alive.
I want to give a big-time shout out to “CardinalStrong” for answering all of my questions so thoroughly and thoughtfully and funnily — the man is a treasure, and that Rex Ryan throwaway comment made me laugh out loud alone in my apartment like a crazy person.
For any and all Louisville updates heading into the game, please be sure to check out the Card Chronicle site, as well as follow @CardinalStrong and the site on Twitter. Louisville will definitely be a fascinating program to follow for the next few years, but especially heading into this Irish season opener, the good folks at Card Chronicle are gonna be the people to go to for any and all breaking news on the Cardinals program.
Alright folks, that’s all for today — see you in my Game Preview on Friday...Go Irish!