Friday, July 31, 2009

WTF happened to Louisville?

The picture above was taken almost exactly 30 months ago, when Louisville rallied to beat Wake Forest 24-13 to win the Orange Bowl and finish No. 6 in the AP poll at 12-1. That victory gave them a three-year record of 32-5, and with a shiny new stadium in a watered-down Big East, the Cardinals looked to be on their way to elite status.

Fast-forward to 2009. As Big East Media Day approaches, it's assumed that Louisville will battle Syracuse for the cellar in what's still a watered-down Big East. The obvious question: What happened?

You certainly can't blame the level of competition. The Big East has been a strange entity since the departure of Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College, with no one really stepping up to fill the void as the team to beat. West Virginia was approaching that level under Rich Rodriguez, but Bill Stewart ... not so much. Rutgers, South Florida and UConn have all reached impressive levels compared with their modest histories, but there's not exactly an Ohio State or USC on that list.

The consensus finger (not that one) seems to be pointed at Steve Kragthorpe, who took over for Bobby Petrino after Petrino began his bizarre journey through coaching following the 2006 season. But is Kragthorpe to blame?

He was brought in from Tulsa as a supposed offensive expert, which made sense given Louisville's makeup at the time -- with Brian Brohm returning for his senior year along with an outstanding group of receivers, you might as well play to your strengths, right? In this area, Kragthorpe didn't disappoint -- not at first, anyway. Brohm had an outstanding senior year (although he trailed off a bit late in the season) and the Cardinals finished sixth in total offense and 18th in scoring offense, which should have been plenty to compete for the Big East title. Howeva ...

After finishing 40th in total defense and 17th in scoring defense in 2006, Louisville posted these impressive numbers en route to a 6-6 finish in '07:
  • Total defense -- 84
  • Scoring defense -- 91
  • Rushing defense -- 72
  • Pass efficiency defense -- 115
Gack. And you can't blame the meltdown on a complete lack of talent: The '07 unit included players such as Malik Jackson, Earl Heyman, Rod Council, Lamar Myles, Adrian Grady, etc. Defensive coordinator Mike Cassity was fired (obviously), and Michigan castoff Ron English became the guy who would solve everything. How did that work out in 2008?
  • Total defense -- 70
  • Scoring defense -- 88
  • Rushing defense -- 37
  • Pass efficiency defense -- 99
Eh, not very well, although there was slight improvement across the board, particularly with Heyman and Grady anchoring the interior. But really, outside of two disasters -- 41 points allowed to Pittsburgh (!!!) and an explicable 63 allowed to Rutgers -- the defense was OK, which was all it needed to be in previous years.

The terrifying problem for both Kragthrope and Louisville fans is that the offense took a dive, plummeting to 45th in total yards and 68th in scoring. The Cardinals scored more than 21 points just ONCE in Big East play, and sure enough, the result was a 24-20 win over South Florida -- Louisville's one and only conference victory. And this flop came despite solid play from QB Hunter Cantwell, a breakout year from freshman running back Victor Anderson and two NFL draft picks on the offensive line (All-American center Eric Wood and tackle George Bussey).

Was this a one-year anomaly? It's possible. Kragthorpe turned Tulsa from a disaster into a relative Conference USA juggernaut, going 29-21 in four seasons while breaking pretty much every offensive school record (although that the same Tulsa team has gone 18-5 in the two years since he left, and the offense has become one of the best in the country under Todd Graham).

If his offenses can consistently stay in the top 10 or 20 nationally, Louisville should be fine (which in the Big East should mean bowl eligibility and consistently competing for the conference title). But if his defenses remain bad while his offenses continue to slide, Kragthorpe won't be around long.

And to get back to where I started, things don't look good this year. Anderson should continue to be a strong point after his impressive freshman season, but both lines are now being rebuilt and the quarterback battle -- remember how important the QB is in this offense -- is between juco transfer Adam Froman and former NC State backup Justin Burke, with no clear-cut favorite coming out of spring. On top of that, the schedule couldn't be much more difficult: the nonconference portion alone includes Southern Miss at home along with trips to Utah and Kentucky, while the Big East slate includes visits to UConn, West Virginia and Cincinnati.

I don't know if four or five wins this season is enough to save Kragthorpe's job, but there's a good chance we'll find out.

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