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Louisville offense on hot seat as Cards seek complete performance on road against Georgia Tech

By Russ Brown
Kentucky Today

Going into the season, if there was one area on the University of Louisville football team that appeared to be sound and poised for another big year it was the explosive offense, which returned 10 starters from a unit that finished in the top 30 nationally in total offense, scoring and rushing.

It was the defense that was considered suspect, and those doubts looked legitimate after Miami (Fla.) pulverized the Cardinals for 485 yards in only 60 plays for an average of 8.1 yards in a 47-34 victory over Louisville.

However, to quote Lee Corso: “Not so fast, my friend.”

Louisville running back Javian Hawkins leads the Cardinals with 318 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.

The Louisville defense showed improvement in the 23-20 loss to Pittsburgh two weeks ago, while the offense regressed and drew wide-ranging criticism from coach Scott Satterfield. This happened despite a loaded roster of game-changing players like quarterback Malik Cunningham, running back Javian Hawkins and wide receivers Tutu Atwell and Dez Fitzpatrick.

So now it’s the offense that will unexpectedly be on the hot seat when Louisville (1-2, 0-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) tries to snap a two-game losing streak in a prime-time game Friday (7 p.m., ESPN) against Georgia Tech (1-2, 1-1 ACC) at Bobby Dodd Field in Atlanta.

Much of the burden for rebooting the offense falls on the line, which surrendered seven sacks against Pitt. The Cards, who averaged 447.3 yards per game last season, managed only 223 yards, converted just 1-of-11 third downs and lost three turnovers.

Of Louisville’s 116 rushing yards, 75 of them came on a touchdown by Hawkins. Eliminate that gain, and 15 rushes by Hawkins and Hassan Hall produced a meager seven yards.

A week later, N.C. State, which is not exactly an offensive machine, finished with 398 yards against the Panthers in a 30-29 win.

“Offensively, we know last game was a very poor outing for us, to say the least,” said Satterfield, whose team has had a bye week to work on its problems. “We got whipped up front, we did not make plays in the passing game. We were not in sync at all offensively and when that happens against a really good defense you are going to look really bad. We had plenty of opportunity to make plays and did not execute. Some of the things we did are hard to explain.”

Besides the sacks, UofL gave up four other tackles for loss, and offensive coordinator Dwayne Ledford, who also coaches the offensive line, believes his group is eager to redeem itself.

“I think they took it very personal,” Ledford said. “I think any time you have those types of numbers and that type of performance, if it doesn’t affect you then we have the wrong guys in that room. I think it affected every one of them, even the ones that didn’t play.”

Satterfield said veteran tight ends Marshon Ford and Ean Pfeifer struggled with their blocking assignments too, calling it “the worst blocking from our tight ends since we’ve been here.”

Cunningham will also be looking to atone after Satterfield questioned his decision-making. The redshirt junior has thrown five interceptions in 91 attempts, as many as he had all of last season in 179 passes.

Louisville head coach Scott Satterfield is preparing his Cardinals for Georgia Tech on Friday. (UofL photo)

“Most of them have been a bad decision, throwing it too late or not throwing it at all to (open receivers),” Satterfield said. “All last year he did a good job of taking care of the football. It’s about making the right, proper decisions.”

Throw in three lost fumbles against two recovered fumbles and one interception, and UofL’s minus-5 turnover margin ranks near the bottom in the FBS.

While offense is at the top of Satterfield’s fix-it list, there are other concerns too, especially on special teams, where Louisville has failed to gain any advantage with punter Logan Lupo, who is next-to-last in the ACC at 38.8 yards per punt, or its punt/kickoff return teams. Satterfield calls those areas “hidden yards.”

“It’s not been good. We’re working on it hard,” he said. “We’ve got to punt the ball better. We’re not getting the distance we need on punts, we’re not getting the hang time to allow our cover teams to get down the field, so we’ve got to be a lot more consistent.”

Hall was fourth in the nation in kickoff returns last season with an average of 30.5 yards per return, including a 100-yarder for a touchdown against Wake Forest. But he has had only three chances this year and averaged 14.3.

“We have not been able to get any of that going,” Satterfield said. “We’ve got to figure out a way in the kicking game to flip the field. It’s such an integral part of your team. It was last year for us, and we’ve got to do a much better job of just conventional punting, punt return and kick return game.”

Thus, UofL’s goal against Georgia Tech is putting together its first complete performance of the season — offense, defense, special teams — to avoid taking a three-game losing skid to Notre Dame the following weekend.

“There have been times where we have looked really good when our guys do what they are supposed to do on both sides of the football,” Satterfield said. “If we do what we are supposed to do, we look like a pretty complete football team. We have not been able to put it all together and that’s something we’re stressing, the one thing we are looking to do this week and moving forward.”

And if UofL can’t get it together against a Georgia Tech team that was picked to finish last among 15 teams in the ACC — and with the No. 5 Irish and No. 19/18 Virginia Tech still ahead this month — it could turn into a very long season for the Cards.

Russ Brown covers University of Louisville sports for Kentucky Today.

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