CRAWFORD | The challenge for Louisville: Holding on to the footb - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | The challenge for Louisville: Holding on to the football

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Lamar Jackson in a preseason workout. (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford) Lamar Jackson in a preseason workout. (WDRB photo by Eric Crawford)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – At the risk of having the trophy named for him nominated for removal from its various perches around the United States  – including the University of Louisville football complex – a quote from John Heisman, famous American football coach, to his players, on the importance of ball security:

“Gentlemen, it is better to have died a small boy than to fumble this football.”

The question of fumbles might not be one of life and death for the U of L football team. But it could be one of winning and losing in the coming weeks.

The great Woody Hayes said there were five great mistakes in football: “The fumble, the penalty, the interception, the badly called play, the blocked punt.”

Shoot, even Denzel Washington (playing real-life coach Herman Boone) in Remember the Titans, told his team, “You drop a pass, you run a mile. You miss a blocking assignment, you run a mile. You fumble the football, and I will break my foot off in your John Brown hind parts, and then you will run a mile.”

If the Cards ran a mile for every fumble in a football game, over the past 11 games they’d have run a marathon. They’ve put it on the ground 26 times, and lost 21 of them.

Just to contrast this season with the 2012 season, that Sugar Bowl-winning campaign the Cards lost only five fumbles and committed 20 false-start penalties in 13 games. In this season’s opener, they lost three fumbles and committed 10 false-start penalties.

I was a little surprised when Louisville coach Bobby Petrino didn’t sound the alarms over the fumbles in Louisville’s 35-28 win over Purdue, even if he wasn’t pleased with them. The Cards coughed it up twice at the Purdue 1-yard-line. Fourteen points, handed away. A third Louisville fumble, by wideout Jaylen Smith at the Cards' 40-yard line in the second quarter, led to a Purdue touchdown.

“We’ve just got to get better at it,” Petrino said Saturday night. “The first one, what happened was the fullback was new in there, and he went in too tight, and the quarterback never even got the ball handed off. The angle on the fullback needed to be wider. We do work hard on handing the ball off, but when the fullback is that tight, sometimes it happens. Second time, he’s really trying to score a touchdown, and we have to understand you can’t do that, reach the ball across in traffic. . . . He was trying to compete hard and thinking he was doing the right things. But we should’ve had the defensive player blocked, so a lot goes into it.”

If any team should know the costs of untimely fumbles, it’s Louisville.

Four fumbles helped derail Louisville last season.

Two first-half fumbles led to 14 points by eventual national champion Clemson in a close loss on national TV. A fumble of the opening kickoff led to a quick Houston score in a rout that ended what playoff hopes U of L may have had later in the year. A fumble in the red zone by Lamar Jackson led to the game-winning field goal for Kentucky in last season’s finale, a loss that might well have cost the Cardinals a shot at the Orange Bowl.

In all, the Cardinals’ 21 fumbles in their past 11 games have led directly to 63 opponent points. It’s a credit to the defense that the number isn’t higher. And they represent 26 squandered possessions for the Cardinals.

Now, all fumbles aren’t created equal. And in the season-opener, Petrino said that a couple were just bad luck. But the big thing his team must do, he said, is to stop trying to gain extra yardage by reaching out and extending their ball beyond their bodies, particularly on the goal line.

“We know we can't reach the ball over the goal line,” Petrino said. “That's something kids see on TV and they try to do, but every team has issues with that. Sometimes you worry about it and you fumble it before you cross the plane and it goes out of bounds and it's a touchback. And when you're going down and they can't see whether you're down, they're going to call it a fumble and let the video overturn it. So you just can't do that. The other one, Jaylen just needs to tuck the ball away a little quicker and get both hands over it, but that was a good defensive play. He hit the ball exactly and did what he's been coached to do too. Sometimes that happens.”

It’s just happening a lot more to the Cardinals lately, it seems. The Cardinals do work on it.

“We have drills,” Jackson said. “Running through the bags with the ball high and tight, coaches poking at the ball with another bag, stuff like that.”

Smith said he just got careless with the ball while defenders were closing in.

“I never fumble the ball,” he said. “I probably fumbled three times my whole life. When stuff like that happens it can get frustrating. But it’s a quick fix, easy fix. . . . I can’t speak for everybody else, but you’ll never see me fumble another ball.”

What’s the fix?

“High and tight. Cardinal claw,” Smith said. “It was one of those plays, going across the middle, you’ve got a guy on the outside, a guy in front of you and a guy coming from this way, and I got a little loose with the ball. So the main thing is keep it high on your chest plate.”

Louisville lost 22 fumbles last season, the most in the Football Bowl Subdivision, four more than the highest total. In 2012 and ’13, they were among the nation’s leaders for fewest lost fumbles. Last year and in 2015, they were in the top four for most lost fumbles. Jackson’s eight lost fumbles last season ranked 13th nationally.

Each fumble has its own set of circumstances, but 21 over 11 games, and a special season potentially coughed up because of ball security questions, makes you think it’s a trend the program would be anxious to reverse. The turnovers do take an emotional toll.

“I was mad,” Jackson said. “I don’t like turning the ball over. Coach always drills into our heads, no turnovers, no sacks in the red zone. So we have to do better.”

On the other hand, it has been worse. On Nov. 2, 1929, on a rain-soaked field in Richmond, Ky., the Louisville Cardinals, coached by Tom King, lost nine fumbles in a game against what was then Eastern Kentucky Teachers College.

The good news? They still won, using a pair of still-rare (at that point) touchdown passes to end an 11-game losing streak.

Fumbles don’t have to be fatal. But it’s best not to tempt fate. As the Cardinals found out last season, they can, at the very least, cross the fine line between Orange and Citrus.

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