The Epilogue To Louisville Football’s 2019 Season

Louisville’s 2019 season ended last Monday, as the Cardinals took a 38-28 win over Mississippi State in the Music City Bowl. The year 2019 ended shortly thereafter, with 2020 beginning on Wednesday. About eight months from now (schedule releases notwithstanding), another Louisville football season will begin.

Before we turn our sights to the 2020 football season, I think it’s time that we explore the 2019 campaign one last time and deliver some final thoughts. Here is an unofficial epilogue to Louisville football’s 2019 season, as well as a brief look-ahead to 2020.

Cards lose out on Chubba, but QB situation still looks “Purdy” good

Scott Satterfield’s first full recruiting class at Louisville was solid, ranking 39th nationally and sixth in an increasingly competitive ACC (per 24/7 Sports).

One notable omission, though, is quarterback Chubba Purdy, who flipped from Louisville to Florida State at the eleventh hour right before the early signing period. While it is a blow for the Cardinals to lose a potential future starter at the game’s most important position, Louisville fans should be optimistic about their quarterbacks for the next two seasons.

Why? Because of the emergence of Micale Cunningham. A lot of people will give credit to Javian Hawkins and Tutu Atwell for making Louisville’s offense one of the best in the ACC this past season, and rightly so. But without Cunningham’s improved play from mid-September to the bowl game, it’s tough to imagine that Louisville even gets to the postseason in the first place.

Cunningham’s emergence as the starter, and eventually one of the top quarterbacks in the ACC, helped balance out a Louisville offense that was projected to lean heavily on the running game. The sophomore ended up finishing with 2,065 passing yards, 22/5 TD/INT ratio, and also ran for 482 yards with six touchdowns. Had he thrown one more incomplete pass, Cunningham would have qualified for national rankings, including passer rating (his 194.45 rating would’ve been second in the FBS behind Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow, h/t Kelly Dickey). The QB rating also surpasses the U of L single-season record previously set by Stefan LeFors (181.74, 2004).

Individual accomplishments aside, Louisville’s passing game was also record-breaking in terms of yards per attempt, and nearly broke records in multiple other categories. The 2019 Cardinals became the first team in program history to average over ten yards per attempt, beating the previous record of 9.89 in 1956. Cunningham, in particular, was a huge reason for this as he averaged 11.5 yards per attempt for the season. Louisville also had 32 passing touchdowns (one shy of tying the single-season record set by the 1998 and 2013 squads) and a 3.56 TD/INT ratio.

Long story short, even without Chubba Purdy, Louisville will still have a very solid QB lineup to work with. Provided that Cunningham plays all 12 regular season games and a likely bowl game in 2020, it isn’t farfetched to suggest that he could have a 3,000-yard season with an identical TD/INT ratio, and have a shot to reach 700 rushing yards (1,000 is possible, but more than likely not realistic). Evan Conley and Jawon Pass (assuming the latter stays) will give Louisville two quarterbacks who have had substantial game experience. Tee Webb also joins the roster as young depth and a solid three-star pro-style QB.

Javian Hawkins has a realistic shot at breaking Lamar Jackson’s career yards record

Other than Cunningham, the breakout player for Louisville this season was running back Javian Hawkins. A lot of people projected Hawkins to have a significant role in Louisville’s run-heavy scheme with Satterfield, but as a backup behind sophomore Hassan Hall. When the opening depth chart was revealed back in late August, Hawkins’s emergence as the starter was a mild surprise because of his limited work last season.

Hawkins would not only solidify his role as the starter, but as one of the best running backs in the ACC. He finished with 1,525 rushing yards (more than any running back in school history), nine touchdowns and averaged 5.8 yards per carry while doing so.

Projecting Hawkins to eventually surpass Lamar Jackson’s 4,132 career rushing yards sounds like a bold prediction on the surface, but assuming that he stays with Louisville for 2021 and even 2022, he will have a chance to surpass the Heisman Trophy winner’s career numbers. Hawkins will need 2,600 yards to break Jackson’s record, which would average out to 1,300 per season if he played the next two seasons (and 866.67 per season if he played in 2020, 2021, and 2022). Considering that Satterfield will continue to have run-heavy tendencies and Hawkins’s speed, agility and toughness, he has a realistic shot to leave Louisville as its all-time leading rusher when it’s all said and done.

Louisville should have one of the best offenses in the ACC in 2020 (and possibly 2021)

Micale Cunningham is coming back. Javian Hawkins is also returning. And so, too, will Tutu Atwell, who is coming off a season where he tied the U of L single-season record in touchdown receptions (12) and broke the single-season yards record (1,276). All of this should give U of L one of the premier QB/RB/WR trios in the country, and the group could have a shot to surpass their numbers from the 2019 season.

Louisville will also have a deep group around Hawkins and Atwell that will make their offense very potent. Hassan Hall returns as the top backup RB option behind Hawkins, and also will be a premier threat on special teams. The Cardinals do lose Seth Dawkins to graduation, but Justin Marshall figures to take his place as a big body receiver that can win one-on-one matchups outside. Marshon Ford also comes back as both a key run blocker in Louisville’s zone scheme, and one of their top red zone threats. Those are the surefire returns, and I think Dez Fitzpatrick returns for one final run in a Cardinal uniform. His younger brother, Christian, also has a good shot to get early playing time next season.

… but remember, Satterfield’s run at Louisville is still a work in progress

The best part about Louisville’s 2019 season was rediscovering offensive talent that went dormant in an abysmal 2018. All three players that were mentioned earlier (Cunningham, Hawkins, Atwell) will likely have a shot at all-conference honors next season, with Hawkins and Atwell potentially being dark horses for All-American teams in 2020. Their aforementioned depth at wide receiver and running back should make them one of the most explosive offenses in the conference next season.

But Louisville’s offensive line and its defense will need to take bigger strides next season. Louisville does lose both tackles this offseason (Mekhi Becton to the NFL Draft, Tyler Haycraft to eligibility), and they do have guys in place that could start this spring (Adonis Boone likely at left tackle, Renato Brown at right tackle). But the issues in pass protection continued to linger (40 sacks allowed, 120th in FBS), and the coaches have noted that they want to continue to recruit some depth on both offensive and defensive lines. Louisville does have players like Kobe Baynes, Trevor Reid and Luke Kandra arriving to fill roster spots, but the Cardinals are still likely a couple years away from getting to where Satterfield and company want to be in that department.

Speaking of defensive lines, Louisville is also losing two starters there to graduation (Amonte Caban and G.G. Robinson). Like the offensive line, the Cardinals are trying to improve their depth at the position, but they have guys coming in that could be contributing right away. Yaya Diaby, Dezmond Tell and Henry Bryant will likely be key reserves at minimum, but I’d expect at least one of those three to be starting at some point next season.

They do, however, get the luxury of seeing its entire linebacker group and secondary (sans Khane Pass, who has also graduated) return. The linebacker group should be very solid with C.J. Avery and Dorian Etheridge both entering senior seasons, and Monty Montgomery and Yasir Abdullah emerging as playmakers down the stretch for Louisville. The hope is that with another year in Bryan Brown’s system, they can continue to improve from where they were in 2019. If Louisville becomes a defense that ranks in the 60s-70s nationally across the board, there is a decent chance that year two could see the Cardinals end as a late-arriving Top 25 team.

Final words on 2019, and early 2020 prognostications

“Redemption” is the most likely word to use when describing Louisville’s 2019 season. After coming off a 2018 run that was one of the worst in the program’s history — and even leading to some saying that this was the worst Power Five roster in the country — Louisville turned around and won eight games, which included:

  •  Two wins against teams who were ranked at some point midseason (Wake Forest, Virginia)
  •  A second-place finish in the Atlantic Division with a 5-3 conference record
  •  A bowl win over Mississippi State

If you told me in August that Louisville would accomplish just one of these goals, that would be a success. All three? Calling it anything but a massive accomplishment would be underselling the job that Scott Satterfield accomplished in year one.

That’s not even delving into some of the player accomplishments that were aided by the job the coaching staff did this season. Micale Cunningham finished this season with the best passer rating of any QB in U of L history. Louisville saw its first RB/WR tandem since 1999 go over 1,000 rushing and receiving yards, respectively. The pass rush was far better than it was in the year prior, and all of this led to the events above occurring.

While there was substantial growth for Louisville across the board, there were also some pitfalls that came with it. Louisville saw some defensive struggles at times throughout the year, in wins or losses. Louisville did finish 5-3 in conference play, but could’ve been 6-2 if not for late mistakes down the stretch at Florida State. Then there was the painful blowout loss to Miami, which was Louisville’s first chance to secure bowl eligibility.

There’s also the bitter sting of being blown out by Kentucky for the second year in a row. And unfortunately, Louisville will not get a chance at revenge until next November. L’s down to that.

But the bowl victory is obviously a great step for the program to take, entering next season. It also served as a microcosm for Louisville overcoming various obstacles in its 2019 season.

  • Louisville had to survive offensive shootouts in its first two conference wins against Boston College and Wake Forest, where the Cardinals outscored them 103-99 in that two game stretch. Those games also needed gutsy late game showings from freshman Evan Conley, who showed great moxie in relief of Cunningham.
  • Louisville also had to overcome Virginia’s vaunted defense and rainy conditions to beat the Cavaliers, a team that would eventually go on to win the Coastal Division and play in the Orange Bowl. This would go on to be their best win all year, one that truly cemented them as a potential bowl team.
  • Louisville also overcame a halftime deficit on the road at NC State to win and secure bowl eligibility. This required some big-time throws from Cunningham and kicker Ryan Chalifoux to get that elusive sixth win.

All of this, combined with the 45-13 blowout loss to Kentucky, led up to the Music City Bowl. An early fumble eventually led to the Cardinals trailing 14-0, and suddenly missing its best defensive player due to an ejection. The team that we saw in 2018 likely loses all these games in blowout fashion.

But not this group. That 14-0 deficit became 14-7 after a double pass touchdown. Then 14-10 after kicker James Turner recovered a Mississippi State fumble, which led to another kicker (Ryan Chalifoux) booting a field goal. Then Louisville took the lead with Cunningham hitting Devante Peete for a touchdown. Then Khane Pass scored a defensive touchdown, Louisville’s first since doing so against WKU in the very same stadium three months prior. Add two more touchdowns from Marshon Ford and Javian Hawkins, and boom, a bowl victory by the Louisville Cardinals.

If that’s what year one was, then year two and beyond could bear some promising fruit for the Louisville football program.

L’s up to that.

 

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