Ranked as high as No. 16 after winning its season opener, Louisville entered this year holding high aspirations.
An Athletic Coast Conference Championship Game appearance did not seem inconceivable for the Cardinals. They returned most of their talent from an 8-5 team that overachieved in year one under head football coach Scott Satterfield. Louisville hired Satterfield following a 2-10 finish in 2018.
Any lofty expectations for the Cardinals did not last long. Through four games this season, they have just one win over Western Kentucky (35-21) while losing to Miami (47-34), Pittsburgh (23-20) and Georgia Tech (46-27).
Now Louisville (1-3, 0-3 ACC) is in jeopardy of dropping its fourth straight game when coming to No. 4 Notre Dame (3-0, 2-0 ACC) on Saturday (2:30 p.m. EDT on NBC).
Led by quarterback Malik Cunningham, the Cardinal offense has not experienced much trouble moving the football. Running back Javian Hawkins (85 carries for 468 yards and three touchdowns) and wide receiver Tutu Atwell (25 catches for 281 yards and four touchdowns) are among the best at their positions in the ACC.
Turnovers and defense have been Louisville’s primary concerns. The Cardinals rank among the worst in pass-efficiency defense (No. 57), scoring defense (No. 63) and turnover margin (No. 73). Only 76 of the 130 FBS teams have started their seasons and qualify to be in those rankings. Louisville has lost six fumbles and five interceptions while generating just three turnovers.
Are the Cardinals better than their record indicates? We caught up with Cameron Teague Robinson of the Louisville Courier-Journal for more insight on the Cardinals.
• Was Louisville’s 1-3 start surprising to you?
Teague Robinson: “Oh, definitely. I think people expected them to lose to Miami, at least I did, and maybe Pitt, but the loss to Georgia Tech was a bad one. People had aspirations of nine wins and a sleeper ACC Championship berth like you said, so to not have that and be going to Notre Dame 1-3 with a good chance to become 1-4 now is surprising. The offense has been the biggest surprise. The turnovers have killed Louisville and that’s never been the case for Satterfield teams. They are really two or three plays from being 3-1 instead of 1-3, but the offense hasn’t been consistent in the second half the last few games. I still think they can get to six wins this season, but to be 1-3 right now, I don’t think anybody in Louisville expected that when the season began.”
• How did Satterfield improve Louisville so quickly and significantly last year? Has the start to this season changed your outlook on where this program might be headed?
Teague Robinson: “No, it hasn’t at all. I think the program is still moving upward. I think what we are seeing now is that Satterfield wasn’t lying last year when he said Louisville had a thin margin for error. Last year the offense hit on its big plays and didn’t turn the ball over. This year, it’s been the exact opposite and you are seeing the difference. I don’t think Louisville is as bad as it is showing. There’s plenty of talent on the team. It just has shot itself in the foot. And in terms of the future, Louisville has a potential top-30 class incoming and will return some talent from this year’s team for a few years. I still think the future is bright for Satterfield at Louisville because he’s a smart coach, but right now things have regressed especially in the turnover area.”
• What have been the biggest struggles for Louisville’s defense so far?
Teague Robinson: “Well, turnovers for sure. I sound like a broken record, but it is bad. Only two schools have a worse turnover margin that Louisville right now. It’s turning the ball over too much and it’s not forcing any. So it’s not going great. Also, the defensive line gets no consistent pressure when rushing three or four. The secondary has had some blown plays this year, not nearly as much as last season, but still struggles with mental mistakes at times. The biggest weakness would be the defensive line. I think that bodes well for Notre Dame, which has arguably the best offensive line in the country.
• How do you feel like Louisville matches up with Notre Dame? Where will the Cardinals have the advantage?
Teague Robinson: “I’m not sure there are many. I think Javian Hawkins is a problem for whoever he faces. He’s the second-best running back in the ACC, in my opinion. If not for a poor showing by the offensive line against Pitt, he would be top-five nationally in yards per game instead of top-10. He had a good game against Notre Dame last year in his college debut. I also think Louisville has a dynamic receiving corps with Tutu Atwell, Dez Fitzpatrick, Justin Marshall, Braden Smith and Marshon Ford at tight end. They’ve got weapons. They just have to get them the ball.”
• Fumbles were a key issue for Louisville last week. Other than taking care of the football, what will be the keys for the Cardinals to pull off an upset?
Teague Robinson: “I would say pressure Ian Book, but nobody has done that this year so that’s unrealistic here for Louisville. I think they have to be opportunistic and force some turnovers on defense. Notre Dame had a few against Florida State and it kept them around early because of it. If Louisville can do that and give its offense a chance to get going, it gives itself a good chance to at least be in the game. Louisville has to force some mistakes by Notre Dame to substitute for a lack of pass rush.”
• Scoring prediction: Notre Dame 42, Louisville 24.
Teague Robinson: “Not going to lie, Carter, I picked Louisville to win this game at the beginning of the season. I thought the offense would be better and the defense would have taken a step forward, but the offensive turnover problems and the negative plays have changed that.”