Is Bobby Petrino merely a shell of his former coaching self?
During Saturday afternoon’s 23-17 loss at Clemson where Louisville had every opportunity to put the game away (and handily), the offensive firepower and electric play calling of Bobby Petrino that Louisville fans had become so familiar with from 2003-2006 was noticeably absent. Just as it was vs. Syracuse. Just as it was vs. Wake Forest. Just as it has been all season long.
In the coach’s defense, though, it has already been established that the personnel on this team is not right for the type of offense he likes to run, but the loss to Clemson had a different feel. While the personnel on the field blew several opportunities for big plays (dropped passes, fumbles, etc.) it was the questionable playcalling and a visibly unprepared offense that have all fingers pointed in Petrino’s direction.
The team still possesses Charlie Strong’s defense-first mindset, which Petrino has openly stated has been a major adjustment for him, and the offensive pieces he needs are just not there. Being the case, Petrino, whether he is unable or unwilling, did nothing to simplify the offense vs. Clemson. All season long, the unit has looked confused more times than not when trying to run the type of offense Petrino likes to run, and while he did resort to a run-heavy dose of play calling vs. Wake Forest and Syracuse, he was back to forcing the pass game at Clemson.
Freshman QB Reggie Bonnafon started his third straight game for the Cards, but despite his athletic ability, he again showed he just is very far away from fully understanding the QB position. His passes were inaccurate, he looked lost in the pocket, and he just was not seeing the field. To make matters worse, he did throw a few great passes only to have them horribly dropped in open space. That likely did not do much for his confidence moving forward the rest of the game.
Louisville was going nowhere with Bonnafon under center, only managing 10 yards on 17 plays in the second quarter, and yet, Petrino stuck with him. Not only did he stick with him, he continued to gamble with him. Louisville has been horrible when it starts deep in its own territory this year and has lost multiple fumbles. That proved to be the case again Saturday when Bonnafon was stripped in the end zone after failing to see the blitz, resulting in 7 points for Clemson. It was a bad play all around, but the young QB should not have been put in that situation.
Despite having a healthy Will Gardner on the sideline and witnessing the offense trip over itself time and time again, Petrino did not make a change until more than halfway through the third quarter, and magically, the Cards started to move the ball. Gardner played as good as he has all season. After he started off with two awful passes, things started to click for him, as he began making nice throws, nice reads, and his release was quick. He led a TD drive on his first series, and he had Louisville in great position to win the game in the final seconds. Why it took so long for Petrino to make the change under center is a strange mystery.
The coach was also forcing the pass game when there was none with Bonnafon. Half the time, it seemed he could not even get the ball out of his hands due to Clemson’s pass rush. Running a two-back set with Dominique Brown and Lamar Atkins as a lead blocker was working, and yet Petrino did not stick with it.
The creme de la creme of his coaching blunders came on the game’s final series. With the score 23-17 Clemson, Louisville had a chance, but given the offensive performance the rest of the game, it was highly improbably Louisville would drive 86 yards in under 2 minutes. Then Gardner hit James Quick on a slant, and Quick was able to take the ball 70+ yards to put the Cards inside the 10 with all four downs and plenty of time. It does not get any easier than that, right? Apparently wrong.
After a completed pass to Kai de la Cruz got the Cards to the 1-yard line, Petrino, for whatever reason, went with a single back set with Dominique Brown rather than use the two-back set that had worked so well earlier in the game. Brown got the carry and was immediately dropped for the loss. The clock continued to run, but with plenty of time to still run two pass plays, things still looked favorable for the Cards. Then Petrino did the unthinkable. He ordered Gardner to spike the ball to stop the clock.
The offense has struggled to move the ball all season, had struggled against Clemson, and Petrino decided to carelessly throw a play into the trash, because in his opinion, he had the play to win the game and he only needed one play. There is just no excuse for that line of thinking when it comes to the Louisville offense. It would be like a bad bowler who only needs to knock down 10 pins to win, but he chooses to roll his first ball down the gutter because he thinks he will get a strike. In other words, choosing to do something like that is nothing but unfounded arrogance, and in the end, it bit Petrino right in the back side.
Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables had done his homework and knew exactly what the 4th down play was, and the Tigers D stopped it with ease. Game over. Opportunity blown.
It is not just from a playcalling viewpoint Petrino should be questioned, as again, he is in a very foreign territory with this unit and is still trying to figure out how to get them to click. And for all their faults, the OL has shown signs of improvement in regards to protection. Yet, one area that continues to haunt Louisville are the constant penalties and continued lack of focus.
Louisville finished the game with 11 penalties for 65 yards, nearly all of which were preventable by simply focusing. Offsides, delay of game, the Cards just could not stop shooting themselves in the foot. Then there were several dropped passes, running a 7-yards route on 3rd and 9, and oh yes, the fumbles. James Quick dropped 3+ passes himself Saturday and muffed two punts, one he lost. The way the offense looks so unprepared and unfocused week in and week out ultimately falls on the coaching staff. The new offense may be confusing for this group, but it should not be so confusing to the point where the players forget the basics. Watch the ball on the snap, pay attention in the huddle, watch the play clock, and look the ball in all the way. This team did not have those same issues last season under Charlie Strong. They have had them each week this season under Bobby Petrino.
Looking at the positives, though, there should not be a soul remaining questioning the legitimacy of the Louisville defense. It is a slap in the face to the unit to lose the game after not allowing one offensive touchdown. They have not allowed one, in fact, since the third quarter at Virginia. They forced Clemson into two INTs, and truthfully speaking, they had about 4 pass breakups that could have gone for pick sixes. Yet, as much as the defense carries the team, expecting them to score all the points, too, is a little much.
With this defense, Louisville may be able to compete with anyone in the country, and the 7-5/8-4 season most fans were predicting still appears attainable. Yet, for that to happen, the offense will need to continue to improve (and the return of WR DeVante Parker will certainly provide a boost) and have to eliminate the boneheaded mistakes being made every game.
In the social media universe, Petrino was easily the most popular scapegoat for the loss, some fans going as far as to question the hire, but in the grand scheme of things, he will still likely prove to be the best man for the job once he gets the pieces he needs. This offense is just severely lacking, and someone like Pat Narduzzi or Chad Morris would not change that.
The pieces will eventually be there for Petrino, but to get to that 7-5/8-4 goal, this team will have to be better disciplined and should not be asked too much of what they are incapable of doing. That department ultimately falls on Petrino.