Will the old Bobby Petrino please stand up?
This is the question Louisville football fans are continuing to ask as their team distances themselves further and further from relevance.
Now halfway through his fourth season of his second stint at Louisville, his record since returning is now 30-15 following Thursday night’s disheartening loss at NC State. It’s not that losing on the road to a ranked opponent is a bad thing, especially on a short week, but rather it is a continuation of a slippery, downhill path the Cards have been traveling along since November of last year.
Petrino didn’t just lose to a ranked opponent on the road, but he lost to a ranked opponent for the 9th time in ten tries since 2014. Read that again: Petrino is paltry 1-9 against ranked opponents since returning to Louisville. Dating back to last season, they are 4-5 in their past nine contests, and of those four wins, none were particularly ones that inspired much confidence.
In fact, perhaps “downhill slide” is not entirely appropriate, as to fall downhill, it takes one to at least be at a significant height. Louisville under Petrino recently has approached that height but not quite reached it.
Thus far in Petrino 2.0, his highlights have been coaching a Heisman Trophy winner, beating Florida State, losing close to Clemson in 2016, and holding on to defeat a Texas A&M team down to their third QB making his first career start. Needless to say, when fans held their collective noses and accepted the re-hiring of the man who used the program as nothing more than a resume builder for four seasons, they expected a little bit more.
There was never a time from 2003-2006 when Petrino’s name was linked to other jobs that Louisville fans didn’t nervously bite their nails. Now when his name is linked to other jobs, more and more fans appear to be voicing their opinion that they are ready to help him pack his bags if necessary. After all, this isn’t what they signed up for.
The high-octane, take-no-prisoners style of play featuring bloodthirsty players with a chip on their shoulder has yet to re-emerge in the soon-to-be ~70K seat stadium. There have been glimpses, sure, and watching a player like Jackson is something fans may never witness again, but the never-back-down mentality and penchant for playing hard and disciplined on the biggest stages have largely been nonexistent from his teams as a whole.
What is interesting is that the never-back-down mentality fans want to see was fully encompassed during his first tenure by players largely unheralded as recruits. This time around, Petrino has either inherited or brought in more talented playmakers than he ever had during his first run, but the fire just doesn’t appear to be there. He has more speed, more athletic ability, and for recruiting fans out there, more three- and four-star athletes he ever had. And yet, it is possible if not probable each team from 2003-2006 would blow his new teams off the field.
Too often last season during each close game following the loss to Clemson, there was a similar theme from sideline reporters when describing the Louisville energy on the bench: heads hanging, no enthusiasm, occasional bickering, and otherwise silence.
Players from his first era have been known to describe Petrino as someone who was tough as nails who expected nothing but the best, but above all else, he was someone players were ready to follow into battle and fight alongside. It showed, too, when despite having a so-called talent disadvantage at times, they fought to the core and/or defeated teams like Miami, West Virginia, TCU, Boise State, and others.
That desire to fight for Petrino has been all too rare, for over the past two season, any time Louisville has been pushed or challenged, their response appears to be to fall back on their heels rather than to push back. Why? Is the absence of Petrino’s fiery brother Paul that big of an issue? Is this caliber player he is recruiting not responsive to his staff? Something has to give.
Aside from the lack of enthusiasm, there is also the questionable play calling. Yes, Lamar Jackson is a special player, and due to his dual threat abilities, the number of times a running back will be getting the ball will be less than if, say, Louisville had a guy like Kyle Bolin under center. Abandoning the run altogether, though, does the team no good, but it is essentially how he has been operating the offense.
Gone is the “Feed the Studs” mantra, and in its place is “Feed Lamar and only Lamar at any cost.” It is a strategy that has become repetitive and predictable, and as talented as Jackson is, asking him to do it all himself is too much.
Take a look at these numbers. From 2003-2006, Louisville running backs carried the ball an average of 415 times each season. From 2008-2011, Arkansas backs averaged just shy of 400 carries per season. In 2013, Western Kentucky ran 468 times out of the backfield.
Now look at these numbers for Louisville running backs since 2014: 379 carries, 291 carries, 243 carries, currently 96 carries on pace for south of 200 on the year. Jackson can run like Steph Curry can shoot, but there is no reason to ask him to be the only backfield threat when others exist.
Louisville has not lacked capable bodies in the backfield in recent years. Brandon Radcliff, LJ Scott, Malik Williams, and others have been more than productive when they get to touch the football, but all too rarely have they been utilized to the best of their abilities.
Now, Petrino is in a major jam, as he has now lost three of his best running backs for the season in freshman Colin Wilson (knee), Jeremy Smith (foot), and almost certainly Malik Williams after the gruesome arm injury he suffered at NC State. The good news, however, is redshirt freshman Dae Williams, who is coming off a spring ACL injury, has been back practicing and even dressed for NC State. If he can play, it could be a big boost, as Reggie Bonnafon, Trey Smith, and Harry Trotter will not be enough.
It also may force Petrino’s stubborn hand to move abhorrently misused WR Traveon Samuel to the backfield, where he can put his speed and explosive athletic ability to good use. Regardless, Petrino should and must find a way to get something out of the running backs aside from being off-the-line blockers.
Now, some reading this may be thinking, “Well, while the offense has its issues, it’s the defense that is killing Louisville, and that is not on Petrino.” It’s true that the defense is a disaster, it’s true that Petrino almost never gets involved with defensive game planning or calls, but Peter Sirmon, who is the man behind the worst Louisville defensive product since the Kragthorpe era, is the best defensive coordinator hire Petrino could make. Think about that.
Think about the fact that aside from his former players, members of his family, and Chris Klenakis, he can’t hold onto coaches. He has lost seven assistants in four years to other programs, all of which were lateral moves at best. The best hire he could make to replace former defensive Todd Grantham was the guy who was fired to make room for Grantham.
When coaches are leaving left and right and players are playing without fire and discipline, something is not right. This isn’t the brand of Bobby Petrino Louisville fans were expecting. At this point, halfway into his fourth year, his team is unranked and looking at a very real possibility of being no better than a 7-win team.
Something needs to be done to fix the underlying issues that have been plaguing the Louisville program since falling in Death Valley last fall, and thus far, aside from an improved OL, nothing much has been done. Petrino said it himself after the NC State loss that he isn’t getting the job done. No, he is certainly not.
It’s time for him to rediscover what made him such a brilliant coach in the first decade of the new millennium. Maybe bring in some former players to help motivate his new team, maybe change up some schemes, and maybe even make some personnel decisions on the defensive side of the ball that could help salvage the season.
The team currently has its back against the wall and is looking at a potentially very disappointing second half of the season. The Bobby Petrino of old would be able to make the necessary adjustments and create the necessary motivation to fight back and get back on track. The question is, does he still exist? Because this Louisville team could sure use him.