LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Well, that wasn't a fun game to watch.
The 2021 college football season finally made its return, but for Louisville, it was anything but a triumphant one. Taking on Ole Miss down in Atlanta, Ga. for the annual Chick-Fil-A kickoff game, the Cardinals quickly dug themselves into a first half hole, and found themselves on the wrong end of a 43-24 blowout to the hands of the Rebels.
Before we close the book on the season-opener against Ole Miss, and transition into week two's home-opener against Eastern Kentucky, I wanted to provide some closing thoughts and observations from the game:
- I'll be the first to admit that I thought Louisville would have a tough time winning this game. Ole Miss is just plain better and was arguably the more talented team. But, if Louisville executed and made a minimal amount of mistakes, and kept it competitive, they had a shot to outright win. Like most people, I'm not necessarily disappointed with the result as it pertains to the win/loss column, but more so how the team as a whole looked while losing.
- All season long, the coaching staff touted this team as the best it had ever been under their watch. Sure, most of it was probably coach speak, but there were genuine reasons to think this team could rebound from their 4-7 campaign last year. I know it's just one game, and they were matched up against a team that was better than them, but Louisville's perceived strengths (offensive line, secondary) didn't look good at all, and their weaknesses (wide receivers, defensive line) looked even worse.
- Before I get into the actual players and position groups, I want to address the game plan from the coaching staff first, particularly on offense. They had literal months to plan for this game. I know not every single waking moment during the spring and summer is spent prepping for your first game, but you would think they would be pretty prepared for every wrinkle Ole Miss throws out. By their own admission (well, technically Malik Cunningham's), they were expecting near nonstop blitz pressure. Instead, the Rebels did the exact opposite, and dropped eight into coverage from the start. Scott Satterfield and the rest of the offensive staff should have started making adjustments right after the first series when they saw that Ole Miss was not doing what they prepared. They did not shy away from their script and make any meaning changes to their offensive attack until halftime - when the game was already 26-0. That had shades of the Notre Dame game last season, where the offense was kept off the field and their initial script wasn't done until the second half. That cannot happen. Adjustments have to be made at a moment's notice in case the game plan goes off the rails. Make them adjust to you, not the other way around. Speaking of the game plan itself...
- Louisville cannot continue to trot out the simplistic, predictable, or just plain questionable play calling like they did last year. Far too often in the first half, it felt like they went stretch left, stretch right, throw on third down. Or other times when they ran in clear passing situations, like 2nd & 16 or 3rd & 11. I will give them credit for making some offensive adjustments in the second half, but that also came when the game was pretty well decided.
- A lot of criticism is seemingly getting directed at quarterback Malik Cunningham. Sure, he wasn't perfect and had a handful of offline throws, including a really bad interception. But he did eventually settle in the second half, going 17-of-24 for 174 yards during the latter half. It might have been garbage time, but it's still promising nonetheless.
- Most of the offensive struggles were more so due to the performance of the offensive line and wide receivers, and less on Cunningham. For an offensive line that was touted as much as they were by the staff in the offseason, with as much experience as they have, they looked abysmal - particularly Cole Bentley and Trevor Reid. There were multiple times where Cunningham had to escape the pocket when Ole Miss was sending just a three man rush. I get that Ole Miss has SEC-caliber linemen, but Louisville should not be consistently losing 5v3 battles like that. But, credit where credit is due. Caleb Chandler played well, Michael Gonzalez showed flashes as to why he has so much trust from the staff as a true freshmen (minus one really bad block on the Smith-to-Cunningham trick play), and Bryan Hudson could get a lot more run at center moving forward.
- Now let's talk about the wide receivers. We knew heading into this game that they would be a work in progress because of all the experience they lost, but they did not do Cunningham any favors in the first half. I know this is partially due to Ole Miss playing Cover 8 and the coaching staff's lack of immediate adjustments, but they just could not get open. Even when Cunningham used it legs to try and extend the play, they still couldn't get separation. But, again, credit where credit is due. Josh Johnson got going in the second half and looked good in spurts, as did Ahmari Huggins-Bruce. Marshon Ford also looked good both as tight end and out wide. It's concerning that both Justin Marshall and Tyler Harrell, both guys who got massive offseason hype, only had one reception, but I'm willing to give the benefit of the doubt that this was a one-off performance. At least for now.
- I won't be too critical about the running backs, considering to play calling predictability and the play of the offensive line. I wouldn't be shocked if Hassan Hall is still in the cold tub considering how much the poor guy was hammered all night, though it's still concerning that he had a fumble in a 4th down situation where he could have easily had a touchdown. Jalen Mitchell looked decent, and it was nice to see Trevion Cooley some in the second half.
- I want to get back to the coaching staff, this time on defense side of things. A lot of people will look at the 43 points and 569 yards given up and think it was an all-systems failure. I don't necessarily this is completely accurate considering that is Ole Miss' identity and Matt Corral is a Heisman Trophy candidate, but it still wasn't good. Corral was allowed to sit in the pocket far longer than should have been allowed, and he tore that defense apart. Not enough pressure broke through, and the linebackers and corners allowed way too many short passes for big gains thanks to soft coverage they were playing. I get you can't press all the time, but don't play 10-15 yards off the receiver every time.
- It was extremely disappointing to see the defensive line/front seven be largely ineffective at getting in the backfield. Not only did that give Corral have time to throw, but allowed the running back to find success more often than not. I was shocked to read the box score and see that defensive end YaYa Diaby logged absolutely no stats, but was pleased at how DE Ashton Gillotte looked in spurts.
- The linebacking corps looked good but not great. Yasir Abdullah's impact was felt over on the edge, and CJ Avery looked good in pass coverage - he just has to come away with an interception from time to time. Conversely, Nick Okeke didn't look comfortable when he had to take over at ILB following Monty Montgomery's ejection, and there were way to many arm tackles for my liking at times.
- The secondary... woof. Yes, Ole Miss has one of the best - if not the best - passing attacks in the nation, but I still expected them to challenge Corral more. Kenderick Duncan looked good at times; Kei'Trel Clark, Greedy Vance and Qywnnterrio Cole were okay in coverage; and Chandler Jones was just bad.
- Well, at least the special teams wasn't awful. Placekicker James Turner was 3-3 on PATs and nailed his lone field goal attempt, while true freshman punter Mark Vassett averaged 44.3 yards on three punts. Maybe the field position battle won't be as big of a concern this year.
- I really, really, really do not want to continue to discuss turnovers. But alas, it bears repeating. Louisville cannot continue to lose the turnover battle if they expect to be in games. Hall's fumble in the red zone was a huge momentum shift, and Cunningham's interceptions came on an awful read. These are very correctable, but they shouldn't continue to be an issue at this point in time.
- I'll close with this thought. It's easy to overreact after one game, especially with how bad Louisville looked overall. Hell, maybe Ole Miss is a lot better than we thought, and is a contender to win the SEC or even make the College Football Playoff. There is still plenty of time to turn things around and have a good season, but they needed to set the tone for the year with a competitive opening outing, and it was anything but. How they respond over the next 2-3 weeks could have massive repercussions not only for the season outlook, but the longevity of the current staff.
(Photo of Tariqious Tisdale, Malik Cunningham: Brett Davis - USA TODAY Sports)
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