LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Returning home to Cardinal Stadium for a matchup with Virginia, Louisville was unable to protect a 17-point fourth quarter lead, surrendering a late 21-3 run by the Cavaliers to fall 34-33.
Before we close the book on Louisville-Virginia and transition into the bye week, I wanted to provide some closing thoughts and observations from the game:
- First, we need to address that fourth quarter. I remember watching Blake Bortles, Storm Johnson and UCF complete that comeback in 2013; then Jameis Winston and FSU storm back in the next season. There have been a few heartbreaking comeback losses for Louisville that I can immediately recall from recent memory, but I don't think any of them (in my personal opinion) hold a candle to how brutal that loss was on Saturday. It's almost unfathomable. Louisville had a 20-point run right out of halftime, built up an insane amount of momentum in the process heading into the fourth quarter, only to completely and totally squander it.
- I get that Brendan Armstrong is a great talent. I get that Virginia has size at the receiver and tight end positions. I get that they boasted one of the top defensive passing attacks in the country. I get that Louisville's defense was getting fatigued towards the end. I get all that. But that conservative defensive game plan needs to be burned immediately. We have a big enough sample size to know that the persistent three-man rush is simply not working. Sure, Virginia's wide receivers made some good catches with a DB at their hip from time to time. But, for the vast majority of the afternoon, the holes they found while eight defenders dropped into coverage were absurd. There were multiple catches made where the nearest defender was at least five yards away. Despite dropping eight into coverage, Louisville could not slow down Virginia's passing attack. Not to mention the tackling was, once again, incredibly suspect. It's cliche, but there is some truth to it: the prevent defense prevents you from winning, and everybody but this coaching staff can see it.
- If you're going to go with the three-man rush as much as Louisville does, you better have the personnel to do it - and Louisville simply doesn't. Ashton Gillotte has been solid this season, but he was limited against the Cavs with an injury. YaYa Diaby has been extraordinarily underwhelming - back injury or not - and the rotation at nose tackle has hardly been disruptive. Louisville is running the three-man rush like their D-Line consists of Reggie White, Bruce Smith and 'Mean' Joe Greene.
- On UVA's final drive alone, they converted not one, but two fourth downs: one from six yards out and another from eight. Stop either one, and the game is over.
- Sure, there were some lapses on offense, but let's talk about what went well first. Whenever you put up 33 points on 503 total yards, more often than not, you're going to come away with a win. What's more impressive, is that they averaged a full two yards per play more (8.1 YPP) than a Virginia offense that ranked second in the nation heading into this game.
- Normally I would point out that Louisville ran the ball 21 times while throwing it just 10 in the second half, but it seemed to be working thanks to Hassan Hall's 162-yard day. Plus, if Tyler Harrell is able to hold onto the ball late in the fourth quarter to complete what would have been a long completion, it might have been a moot point anyways.
- Instead of criticizing the entire conservative run-first approach in the second half, there were some individual situations that raised questions for me. On Louisville's second drive of the fourth quarter, it was simply three straight runs and a punt. On their third drive, one which had proceeded a 14-point run from UVA, Satterfield opted for the field goal to go up 33-27 with under three minutes. Normally, it's an easy decision to take the points and force your opponent to have to score a touchdown. But, considering the Virginia offense had just scored two straight touchdowns, an argument can be made to be aggressive and go for it.
- In fact, with as many yards as Louisville put up, way too many drives ended with field goal attempts. James Turner is good, but he’s still human.
- It's a damn shame that Hassan Hall's career day came during a loss. He hadn't had a rushing attempt since Eastern Kentucky, but then exploded for 162 yards. It was great to see him battle back from his injuries and fumble issues to have a game like this. If they can get consistant effort and execution from him, Louisville's running back room gets a lot more dynamic. The one gripe is that on his breakaway 53-yard run, if he just keeps his head forward and doesn't look around, that's probably a touchdown to put the game away.
- Not to go unnoticed, the offensive line tight ends and wide receivers did a tremendous job on their blocks during this game. Zero sacks and only four tackles for loss. Granted, Virginia's current front seven isn't known for their physical prowess, but you still have to commend the blocking effort.
- All in all, Louisville's effort through the air looked solid. Virginia made a concerted effort to keep Malik Cunningham from running wild, but he still was able to complete 17 of his 25 passes for 270 and a touchdown.
- At the halfway point of the season, it looks like the receiving core is starting to really mesh together. After having countless discussions about it in the media all summer, it seems like go-to guys have emerged to be Ahmari Huggins-Bruce, Jordan Watkins and Justin Marshall - with that trio leading in both targets and receptions by a noticeable margin. However, Tyler Harrell absolutely needs more than three targets a game.
- I was skeptical that Jack Fagot could seamlessly transition to CARD outside linebacker, but he has been incredible over the last few games. He once again led the charge with eight tackles, while also tallying a sack. Conversely, CJ Avery has been prone to droughts this season, and he will have to get more consistent moving forward.
- While Kei'Trel Clark did have a thunderous TFL and a couple PBUs, like last week vs Wake Forest, there were a few times where he didn't look that great in coverage. That's something to monitor.
- I've already said my piece on the performance from the defensive line and secondary, but I'll just rehash it all with this: regardless of any defensive changes or adjustments Louisville makes moving forward, both units need to step it up. The D-line - while improved since the first two games - is still largely a non-factor, and the secondary continues to get roasted.
- One of the more disheartening things from the game was a comment made by Justin Marshall. After Louisville had extended their lead to 30-13, Marshall admits that the players got a little bit complacent. So, not only did the coaches let their foot off the gas, the players did too. Even worse is the fact that this is now the third game in a row in which either the coaching staff or players have slammed on the brakes in some regard. Once is chance, twice is a coincidence, three times is a pattern.
- Turnover margin check: Still +1 on the season!
- I'll close with this thought: You can make the argument that Louisville should currently be sitting at 5-1 and have complete control of the Atlantic Division heading into the bye week. Instead, they are 3-3 and coming off of one of the biggest choke jobs I have ever witnessed. This was the kind of performance that can get an assistant coach fired, and it honestly would not be surprising if Louisville made some sort of defensive adjustment - whether that be letting go of a coach or re-assigning play calling duties - prior to their next game with Boston College.
You can follow Louisville Report for future coverage by liking us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram:
You can also follow Deputy Editor Matthew McGavic at @Matt_McGavic on Twitter