After Friday night's lopsided 35-10 loss to Pittsburgh in their Big East opener, the Cardinals now have lost eight of their last nine games, including six straight Big East games. The loss dropped Louisville's record this season to 1-3 – the lone win against lowly Indiana State. With one third of the season now complete, the immediate future doesn't appear too bright for Steve Kragthorpe's Cardinals.
What went wrong in the Pittsburgh game – a game that saw the Panthers blitz the Cardinals 28-0 in the second half? A lot of the same stuff that has plagued Kragthorpe's team the past few seasons.
There were too many costly penalties – 10 for 98 yards to be exact, including four personal fouls. Two of those personal fouls accounted for 30 yards on the Panthers first touchdown drive that tied the score at seven.
Louisville's pass coverage completely broke down, particularly in the second half. Ahead 10-7, Louisville gave up touchdown passes of 37 yards and 71 yards in the third quarter to fall behind 21-10. The Cardinals never recovered.
"At halftime we had the lead and had command of the game at that point in time," said Kragthorpe. "Then we gave up the deep shots and that took the wind out of our sails. We had the turnover and all of a sudden, we go from being in a position where we're up 10-7 to being down by 11. That was a little disheartening, no doubt."
The Cardinals offense was ineffective on third down for the third time in four games. Louisville managed to convert just 3 of 15 third downs against a Panther defense that had allowed 500 or more yards in two of its last three games.
Maybe the biggest problem for the UofL offense was an offensive line that couldn't protect quarterback Adam Froman or open holes for the Cards' running backs. A week after allowing four sacks against Utah, Pittsburgh sacked Froman, making his first start, six times. Louisville also couldn't generate any semblance of a rushing attack, averaging just 2.7 yards on 35 carries.
"On the offensive line, we struggled...at tackle," said Kragthorpe, who is 4-11 in the Big East. "We tried to help those guys out with some shifts, some different seven-man protections, some play action to keep them off balanced and move the pocket a little bit. We struggled in some one-on-one situations when we got in third-and-longs where they know we're throwing."
And there were little things – well, actually big things like giving up 27 yards to the Pittsburgh offense on third and 17, Froman's fumble with the Louisville offense driving at the Pitt 31, and an inability to score a touchdown from the six yard line just before the half that would have put UofL ahead 14-7.
But the problems run deeper than penalties, fumbles and poor line play.
There is massive fan discontent with the UofL football program, not a good sign with stadium expansion moving forward. After all, this was a program that not long ago was considered one of the nation's top up and coming programs. It was a program that won lots of games, especially at home. It was a program that expected to go to a bowl each season and did nine straight seasons. It was also a program that ESPN loved to televise, particularly during prime time Thursday night matchups. And that's not to mention a lack of talent and depth at several key positions.
These days, Louisville is no longer a factor in the Big East, much less on the national scene. The Cardinals haven't won a league game since last Oct. 25, and are 0-3 against rival Kentucky. Louisville also hasn't been to a bowl since Bobby Petrino left town and their record at PJCS under Kragthorpe is an uninspiring 9-7. Once a regular on ESPN's Thursday night showcase, the Cardinals have been relegated to occasional ESPNU and Friday night ESPN2 games this season.
What's the solution? If you ask the vast majority of Louisville fans they'll give you a simple answer: A coaching change.
Steve Kragthorpe has been on the hot seat since a disappointing first season at UofL with a team that had Top 10 preseason expectations but finished 6-6 and missed a bowl game for the first time in a decade. But that seat has never been as hot as it is right now after a third straight defeat this season.
The hot football topic on message boards and talk radio four games into the 2009 season? Potential coaching replacements.
Give credit to UofL fans, though. Despite a football team struggling to win games, Louisville showed up in force for Friday night's game against Pittsburgh. Still, there was hardly any detectable electricity or excitement from the crowd at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium last night, even when the Cardinals took a 10-7 lead into the break.
When Pitt dropped the hammer on the Cardinals in the third quarter with two long touchdown passes, some of the Louisville fan base began to express their opinion on the current state of the program by heading for the exits. When the Panthers added another score with 8:47 remaining in the game most of the rest of the remaining UofL faithful promptly rushed for the parking lots, too.
Hope? There wasn't much visible at PJCS Friday night.
Concern? Nearly all Louisville fans that I spoke with at the game Friday night are deeply concerned about the current direction of the football program.
Frustration? Oh, yeah.
Apathy? It has also infested what used to be an optimistic group of fans.
A solution? That's what the Cardinal faithful eagerly anticipate.