Friday night's 24-17 loss to Florida International was a perfect example.
Strictly judging by the numbers, Louisville should have won the football game against a Sun Belt opponent. The Cardinals outgained FIU 446-293, had 15 more first downs, held possession of the football 13 minutes longer and committed only four penalties, one less than the Panthers.
But Strong's talented, yet inexperienced team, couldn't overcome FIU for three main reasons:
- Winston Frazier's 71-yard first quarter interception return for touchdown
- T.Y. Hilton's 74-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter
- Hilton's 83-yard touchdown reception on FIU's next possession
Those three BIG plays were the difference in the game. Subtract Hilton's two devastating scoring catches, both of which came on third down, and FIU had less than 150 total yards on offense.
Criticize offensive coordinator Mike Sanford's play-calling all you want, but the fact of the matter is Louisville doesn't yet have the necessary firepower on offense to overcome big plays like the ones Frazier and Hilton sprung on the Cardinals last night.
Louisville's offensive woes stem from an offensive line that is playing with five new starters. That group simply didn't get the job done against FIU.
UofL's running game, which had only 83 yards on 41 carries, was virtually non-existent. That's because the Cardinals o-line, which features two freshmen starters (Jake Smith and John Miller), and a senior with virtually no experience (Hector Hernandez), didn't move the Panthers – or Murray State last week - off the line of scrimmage. That was never more evident than Louisville's failure to convert crucial third and one and fourth and one run plays in the fourth quarter on FIU's 7-yard line.
Without an effective running game, Louisville's offense has struggled to sustain drives and score touchdowns. Though quarterback Will Stein completed 30-of-43 passes for 349 yards, UofL scored only one touchdown in the first 58:11. Forced to throw too often, Stein found himself under constant pressure and was sacked six times in the contest.
Dave Borbely's group needs injured junior center Mario Benavides to return to the lineup soon, but that might happen for a while. Benavides' return would improve the Cardinals line at two positions because Alex Kupper could move back to left tackle, where he entered fall camp atop the depth chart. Until Benavides returns, Borbely will continue searching for an answer that might not exist – at least for the foreseeable future.
This is the sort of frustration to be expected during a rebuilding year. And that's exactly what Charlie Strong's program is undergoing, though Louisville's coach won't be happy about losses like the one his team suffered at home Friday night.
With so many young, but talented, players in the lineup, there surely will be more frustrating performances this season for Strong's program. There also will be some breakthrough moments, as well. It bodes well for the future that freshmen wide receivers Michaelee Harris, Eli Rogers and DeVante Parker are already making big plays for the Cardinals offense. Freshmen B.J. Dubose and Andrew Johnson also have made an impact on defense.
Regardless how UofL's record shakes out this season, Strong and his staff are assembling the type of talent needed to eventually return Louisville to the top of the Big East. But it's not going to happen overnight. Despite this team's youth, I'd expect Louisville to ‘compete' with nearly every team remaining on the schedule, including Kentucky next week.
The key for this team to turn the corner, it appears, is improvement from the offensive line. If that unit gets its act together this season, Strong's bunch will be in position to win games. Until that happens, the Cardinals will rely on its defense to keep them in games.
We saw some positive signs from Louisville Friday night – just not enough to overcome FIU's three big-plays.