Notre Dame Football: Pre-Spring Opponent Preview: Louisville
Despite having played football for 127 years, there are still major-conference opponents that Notre Dame has yet to play. The Fighting Irish will cross one more name off that list this November when Louisville travels to South Bend to meet Notre Dame for the first time.
The Cardinals are in a transition from former coach Charlie Strong to semi-new coach Bobby Petrino. Before leaving for the NFL, Petrino guided Louisville to a Big East title in 2006 and an Orange Bowl victory. Three stops and many personal challenges later, Petrino is back with the Cardinals.
Strong guided the program to 23 wins in two years until he left for Texas in January. Despite the loss of star quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, the program remains in good shape due to Strong’s recruiting prowess. The Cardinals move to the ACC this season, making it nearly impossible for Petrino to match Strong’s recent records.
Louisville begins spring practice Tuesday with its spring game set for Apr. 11. Let’s take an early look at the final opponent that will come to Notre Dame Stadium this fall.
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Date: Nov. 22 (3:30 p.m. ET, NBC)
Site: Notre Dame Stadium (Notre Dame, Ind.)
Last Meeting: No previous meetings
Last Meeting at Notre Dame: No previous meetings
Current Win Streak: N/A
Record: 12-1 (7-1 American)
Bowl: Russell Athletic Bowl (defeated Miami (Fla.), 36-9)
Leading Passer: Teddy Bridgewater (Jr.)—303-of-427, 3,970 yards, 31 TD, 4 INT
Leading Rusher: Dominique Brown (Jr.)—163 carries, 825 yards, 8 TD
Leading Receiver: DeVante Parker (Jr.)—55 receptions, 885 yards, 12 TD
Stats That Matter
Yards Per Play: Louisville—7.52 (fourth nationally, first in AAC); Opponents—4.35 (fifth nationally, first in AAC)
Turnover Margin: +17 (second nationally, second in AAC)
Red Zone Touchdown Percentage: Louisville—56.90 percent (89th nationally, seventh in AAC); Opponents—47.37 percent (seventh nationally, first in AAC)
Third-Down Conversions: Louisville—56 percent (second nationally, first in AAC); Opponents—26.94 percent (first nationally, first in AAC)
Explosive Plays*: Louisville—71 (32nd nationally, third in AAC); Opponents—42 (11th nationally, first in AAC)
*Explosive plays are plays in which a team gains 20-plus yards
In a decision that came as a surprise to nobody, Teddy Bridgewater entered the NFL draft with a year of eligibility remaining. That leaves Bobby Petrino with redshirt sophomore Will Gardner as the leading candidate to succeed the most prolific quarterback in program history.
After redshirting in 2012, Gardner saw only mop-up duty in 2013 behind Bridgewater. He completed all five of his pass attempts in a blowout win over Florida International in a game that was known mostly for being played with a running clock in the fourth quarter.
At 6’5”, he has prototypical height for Petrino, who has had his most success with vertically blessed passers such as Brian Brohm and Ryan Mallett. Unfortunately for Notre Dame, with Louisville’s trip to South Bend not until Week 13, Gardner will have plenty of time to become comfortable and gain experience.
Dominique Brown arrived at Louisville as a quarterback. Once Teddy Bridgewater signed with the Cardinals, his future under center was all but over. A knee injury and subsequent redshirt season in 2012 allowed Brown to transition from quarterback to running back, where he miraculously led Louisville in rushing as a junior last season.
Brown was behind senior Senorise Perry on the depth chart until midseason but had an 88-yard, two-touchdown performance in his first start against UCF, ironically the team’s only loss of the season. He started every game the rest of the year, going over 100 yards twice. At 6’2” and 216 pounds, Brown will fit well in Petrino’s offense, which prefers big, physical backs (i.e. Michael Bush, Knile Davis).
Perry moves on, but the Cardinals do have a familiar name behind Brown. Michael Dyer, the hero of Auburn’s victory over Oregon for the 2010 national title, has taken a circuitous route to Louisville. He now has a final chance to salvage what was a very promising career by giving Louisville an excellent 1-2 punch in the backfield.
Even after saying he would return for his senior season, it seemed natural that two-time all-conference receiver DeVante Parker may change his mind after losing his quarterback, head coach and offensive coordinator. Fortunately for Cardinals fans, the Louisville native stayed true to his word and returns to highlight a veteran receiving corps.
Parker led the team with almost 900 yards, going over 100 in both of the team’s final two games. At 6’3”, Parker is a physical receiver and well-polished after three seasons. Not a burner, he’s better before the catch than after the catch.
No. 2 receiver Damian Copeland departs, but Eli Rogers is back after seeing his production drop from 46 receptions as a sophomore to 44 a year ago. Rogers is more of the quick, shifty variety who is dangerous in space. Tight end Gerald Christian returns after catching four touchdowns last season, but his role could change in the new offense.
Bridgewater fought through a number of minor injuries during his Louisville career. Some of those were due to his slender frame, but the 56 sacks allowed the past two seasons by his offensive line did not help matters either.
The whole has not been greater than the sum of its parts for the Cardinals. Left tackle Jamon Brown and center Jake Smith were both all-conference selections last year, but the Cardinals were not a great rushing team or sound in pass protection.
Both Brown and Smith return, so the numbers should get better, even in an offense that often leaves its quarterback exposed to hits (see Tyler Wilson at Arkansas). The lone loss among the starters is right guard Kamran Joyer. Having three senior starters bodes well for this unit.
When Strong took over at Louisville, the talent on defense was not at a level where the team could contend for a conference title. That wasn’t the case for long, and the Cardinals won the Big East in his third season.
Two key members of Strong’s first recruiting class now depart, including AAC Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smith. With 14.5 sacks, Smith trailed only Stanford’s Trent Murphy, whom Notre Dame fans know well, for the national lead.
In addition to Smith, defensive tackles Roy Philon and Brandon Dunn both depart, meaning only one starter returns for a defensive line that will shift to a 3-4 scheme under former Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham.
Fortunately for Grantham, the Cardinals have a great option for the critical nose tackle position in the 3-4 in 330-pound senior Jamaine Brooks, who missed last season with an injury. Lorenzo Mauldin, the lone returning starter, will shift to outside linebacker, meaning the two end positions will have some heated competition this spring.
Mauldin, who has started 19 games the past two seasons, appears to be a natural fit for one of the two outside linebacker spots in the 3-4. Senior Deiontrez Mount and sophomore Nick Dawson each played in 10 games last season and should battle for the other position as an edge rusher.
The inside linebacker positions are a concern. Three-year starting middle linebacker Preston Brown departs after a 98-tackle, 4.5-sack senior season. George Durant, who started five games last season and had a good frame for inside linebacker in a 3-4, also moves on.
Junior weak-side linebacker James Burgess, a two-year starter, is just 214 pounds, about 20 to 30 pounds lighter than Grantham’s inside linebackers at Georgia. Grantham may have to fit some square pegs in round holes at inside linebacker as he makes the transition in scheme.
Calvin Pryor wasn’t your regular old free safety. At 6’2” and 210 pounds, Pryor was a terror against the run, finishing with 75 tackles last season. He was great in coverage as well, finishing his career with seven interceptions before entering the NFL Draft.
The Cardinals had three all-conference defensive backs last season—Pryor, four-time all-conference strong safety Hakeem Smith and cornerback Charles Gaines. Only Gaines returns. The junior led Louisville with five interceptions last season, one of which he returned for a touchdown against USF.
The only starter not to make the all-conference team last season, cornerback Terell Floyd, also returns. Losing both Pryor and Smith is massive, however. Junior Gerod Holliman started one game last season in place of Pryor, but there isn’t much additional depth. With a new system and the loss of two greats, this unit will take a step back this season.
John Wallace has converted 36 of 45 field goal attempts in two seasons. He was highly recruited for a kicker, signing with the Cardinals in 2012. The junior handles kickoffs as well but must improve his consistency after kicking four out of bounds last season.
Louisville is also in good shape at punter with senior Ryan Johnson. He improved his average by nearly two yards per punt from 2012 to 2013. Rogers and Gaines were the primary returners last season, but the Cardinals used multiple players on both kickoff and punt returns.
Coverage units under Strong were solid, giving up just two total return touchdowns over the past three seasons. Their 1.15 yards per punt return allowed last season was the best in the nation.
When you lose one of the best quarterbacks in the country, one of the best coaches in the country and upgrade conferences, there are going to be some struggles. The challenge for Petrino is to avoid the slow start that he experienced at Arkansas when the Hogs sputtered to a 5-7 season in 2008.
If Gardner develops, there are plenty of pieces around him for this offense to be one of the ACC’s best, even in a conference with Clemson, Duke, Florida State and North Carolina. Defensively, Grantham’s Georgia defenses often left plenty to be desired, making the hire a bit of a curious one.
Notre Dame is 4-0 on Senior Day under Brian Kelly, allowing an average of just 7.5 points per game. Are the Cardinals capable of spoiling Kelly’s perfect record in Notre Dame Stadium season finales? If the weather allows, this game could turn into a fun shootout between two potent offenses.