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Failure to launch

CRAWFORD | Not good enough: Louisville's loss to Ole Miss doesn't inspire optimism

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Scott Satterfield

Scott Satterfield in the first half of Louisville's 43-24 loss to Ole Miss.

ATLANTA, Ga. (WDRB) -- The last time Louisville played in this Chick-fil-a Kickoff deal, they lost by a touchdown to Auburn after spotting the Tigers 14 points off turnovers. But they unveiled this Lamar Jackson kid, so you could see that there might be some good things down the road, even though they started the season 0-3.

After losing to Ole Miss 43-24 Monday night in Mercedes Benz Stadium, the road ahead for Louisville doesn't look too promising. And perhaps even worse, it doesn't look too exciting.

The reason Louisville plays in these games is that these are the games Louisville was built on: Get a national TV matchup against a good opponent, show up and compete, play entertaining football, and walk away with a win, or at least a brand of football that kids watching around the country want to play and that people want to watch. Or at least, that used to be why Louisville played these games.

On Monday night in a big-time setting, Louisville was the opposite of entertaining. Rece Davis and Kirk Herbstreit were talking about their dogs in the second half, for God's sake. The best thing Louisville did was have a fan bring a service dog to the game.

And more insulting than that was this: Ole Miss was doing the things Louisville used to do. It had itself together (despite missing its head coach and another key assistant). It operated efficiently on offense. It established its tempo, threw the ball, marched up and down the field, got a big lead and never lost it.

Remember when Louisville receivers were so open that there was no defender on the screen with them? It happened. Check YouTube. Monday night, it was Ole Miss receivers who were that open – and not because of any clever scheme, but just because Louisville conceded so much cushion.

The game was over at halftime. And probably before that. Louisville was sleep walking. Despite a decent opening drive, when Louisville took over for its final drive of the first half, it had 69 total yards for the game and trailed 26-0.

The line couldn't block. The receivers weren't separating. Quarterback Malik Cunningham wasn't getting rid of the ball and the offense was surprised that Ole Miss was dropping eight into coverage and basically basing its entire game plan on bottling up Cunningham.

Louisville dictated nothing. Between the Ole Miss offensive and the Ole Miss defensive game plan, the guys in blue decided how the game would be played.

Even when Louisville did good things, it couldn't make them count. A throw-back pass to Cunningham could've been a big gainer, but the one block that needed to get made didn't get made, and it went for 9 yards. Just before halftime with Louisville driving for a touchdown that it absolutely had to have, a speed option pitch to Hassan Hall on 4th and 2 was fumbled, and the threat ended.

You find yourself asking how a team this hungry, supposedly, after a frustrating 2020, could play that first half? And the answer is that the talent, frankly, isn't there in the quantity that it needs to be. The coaching staff defections took a toll, but the problem is that you couldn't point to a player on offense, not a back, not a wideout, not a lineman, where you could say – that guy is the weapon, attack with him, build behind him.

Louisville was not a good team in 2009. But even that team could run behind center Eric Wood.

The offensive line returned a great deal of experience Monday night, but got worked over by an Ole Miss defense that was little more than window dressing for the program's offense a season ago. Louisville had one play of more than 20 yards on Monday night. Ole Miss had 10. Maybe, as Kirk Herbstreit and others have suggested, the Ole Miss defense is much improved. For Louisville's sake, let's hope so.

For Louisville defensively, while losing Monty Montgomery to a targeting penalty hurt, the fact remains that of 10 completed drives, Ole Miss failed to score only twice, and was driving for another touchdown (and 50 points) when the clock ran out. Kei'Trel Clark was a bright spot on defense. He largely locked up whoever he had, but Ole Miss simply went to the other side. No problem.

And, for some time now, you could gauge Louisville's chances in a game with one simple comparison: Is the other team's quarterback efficient, with good field vision, and able to make opponents pay for coverage lapses? If he can, it's going to be a long day for the Cardinals. Matt Corral of Ole Miss can do those things. And it was a long night for Louisville.

Not to ruin the party, but UCF's Dillon Gabriel can do those things. Florida State's McKenzie Milton can do them too.

So here's where we are: I don't know who Louisville is offensively. Is it going to be a physical team that can impose its will with the run? Can it establish that with no passing game to speak of? Is it Malik Cunningham and a bunch of guys?

Is it even that?

The fact is, it's been a while since Louisville has been what it was. In 2018, Louisville had the nation's best offensive player (Jackson) and one of its best defensive players (Jaire Alexander). Even with them, the end results weren't what you might've hoped.

But the bottom line is this -- Louisville's results have been built on great players, either recruiting them, or developing them, and often both.

In the five seasons from 2005 to 2009, Louisville had 21 players taken in the NFL Draft. Again, from 2014 to 2018, it had 21 taken in the draft.

The past three years, Louisville has had three players total selected in the NFL Draft. That's the leanest 3-year period since the 1990s (1998-2000, two players selected).

That's virtually another era.

This program has facilities like it has never had. It has a conference affiliation it never had. It has exposure like it has never had. And frankly, in a down ACC year, it has opportunity like it has rarely had.

I don't want to be unfair to Satterfield, who inherited a program without significant NFL talent. But it's also fair to ask, where is the NFL talent on the roster now? And more than that, where is the drive, the excellence, that the program used to display?

At halftime, in an ESPN interview, Satterfield put the poor performance on his quarterback, and he wasn't wrong. But after the game, unaware of what had been said at halftime, Cunningham seemed to put some of it back on the coaches.

Louisville players used to derive confidence from the game plan itself. On Monday, Cunningham said, "Hats off to (Ole Miss). They had a great plan. The coach had a great plan, and we weren't expecting that. But second half we dialed some stuff up that beat drop eight; just next time I guess we've got to be more prepared."

If you're looking for hope, Louisville scored on all four of its second-half drives. But it never got closer than 19 points, and Ole Miss never looked out of control of the game.

"Sometimes when you play obviously a first opponent you don't know exactly the things they're going to be doing defensively," Satterfield said after the game. "They had been talking about how bad their defense was all off-season and how good their offense was if they can get anything cleaned up. We knew things were going to happen and be different on defense.

We never got in a rhythm in the first half. We never got the sticks moving. And I think obviously when you do that, like we did in the second half, then everybody feels more comfortable, and you're in more of a rhythm and you can move the football and go score points. We didn't have that in the first half probably for a lot of different reasons. It's not any one player. It was overall as an offense. We've got to do better, and we did in the second half."

After the game, Satterfield took some blame on the game-planning, but said he was encouraged by the second-half offense.

"I think our coaches did a good job at halftime of figuring out what we needed to do with trying to get some easier throws, which obviously you want to do that from the beginning of the game," he said. "We didn't do it. I mean, we'll take the blame for that. And second half I thought we had some good things designed that enabled good completions, and he started settling in and played really well in the second half. I take more of the blame than that for anything. I think the second half, the way the guys ran routes, caught the football, ran after the catch, I thought was really nice and good to see, and we'll build off of that."

The building better come quickly, and on both sides. Perhaps it can happen.

But Monday's start doesn't inspire much confidence.

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