ACC

Louisville’s Road Back Running Into BC

Louisville's road back

It’s easy to forget Louisville’s dominant entry into the ACC. The Cardinals arrived in the league in 2014, two years removed from winning the Big East and the Sugar Bowl. They immediately registered four consecutive seasons with at least eight wins and entered an elite stratosphere in 2016, in particular. That’s when quarterback Lamar Jackson won the Heisman Trophy, and Louisville tied Clemson – the eventual national champion – for the division championship.

The train didn’t stop in 2017. There were the aforementioned eight wins, but Louisville displayed a particular resilience after jumping out to a 4-1 start. The Cardinals tumbled from the national rankings after losing to NC State, losing three in a string of four games to fall to 5-4 before ripping off three straight wins. The team stomped Syracuse, 56-10, before blowing out Kentucky on the road, 44-17.

That year’s TaxSlayer Bowl loss to a nationally-ranked Mississippi State team was no indication that the run would come to a crashing halt.

Less than two years later, Louisville enters its game against Boston College as a rebuilding program. It finished 2-10 last season, necessitating a change to new head coach Scott Satterfield, and on Saturday, the team takes the field hoping to continue forging its new identity.

“Their staff has done a fabulous job with their team fundamentally, with their team discipline,” BC head coach Steve Addazio said. “I think they’re playing fast. I think they’re playing aggressive. They have quality players all over the field. They have great athleticism and great speed. I’m very, very impressed with them.”

The regime change meant Louisville started the year knowing there would be growing pains. The defense switched styles last year from a 3-4 to a 4-3, but the arrival of Satterfield and defensive coordinator Bryan Brown meant the unit reverted back to the 3-4. Brown is also the fourth defensive coordinator in four years.

The 3-4 defense places more emphasis on varied attacks at the line of scrimmage. The three down-linemen allow a fourth rusher to come from anywhere in the second level, and the added spacing creates more versatility among linebackers and safeties. An expert unit can disguise coverages and create havoc in the backfield by creating these different options, and there’s a special kind of cohesion between the line and the backers.

Until that happens, though, a defense is susceptible at the line of scrimmage. Powerful offensive lines can push ahead and create a unique surge at the line of scrimmage if the linebackers don’t fill the gaps, and the defensive line can leave too much space in between the edges and the nose guard.

It created some issues in the first week of the season, but the unit steadily improved in the three following games. Against Notre Dame, Tony Jones, Jr. piled up 110 yards on 15 carries, and quarterback Ian Book rushed for an additional 81 as part of a 230-yard output. There were four scores on the ground in a 35-17 Irish victory, and both Jones and Book had explosive carries over 30 yards.

That was a low point, but it was also a starting point. The unit played Eastern Kentucky in its second game and used the FCS opponent as fodder for an improvement as the Colonels only gained 130 yards on 43 attempts. It became a stepping stone to a dominating game against Western Kentucky where the Hilltoppers didn’t even average two yards per carry.

Two weeks ago, Louisville lost to Florida State, but the Seminole offense averaged less than four yards per rush as part of a 140-yard day. Cam Akers finished with 112 yards, but averaged well below five yards per carry, scoring three touchdowns as quarterbacks Alex Hornibrook and James Blackman took center stage.

“I think it’s been pretty solid,” Satterfield said of his run defense. “We obviously think we can get better with it. We’re getting ready to face a team that’ll certainly test that. I think (BC has) a pretty solid offensive line. (The linemen) are young, but they’re talented, and (there are) those two big backs. They have really good tight ends.”

It creates an easy primary storyline heading into Saturday against Boston College. The Eagles have arguably the best tandem attack in the ACC in AJ Dillon and David Bailey, and the entire offense is averaging 252 yards per game, best in the ACC and 13th best in the country. Dillon is officially back to full form as the conference’s best ranking rusher, and the emergence of Bailey gives BC a second option in the top tier. 

For Dillon, it’s the first game against Louisville since his breakout performance in 2017. At the time, he was a back with potential and only had one 100-yard game to his credit. That game, though, fed the true freshmen with 39 carries, 272 yards, and four touchdowns. 

He infamously shed a tackle from defensive back Jaire Alexander before stiff-arming safety Chucky Williams into the middle of the next month as part of a 75-yard run. It was a preview of coming attractions for that season, and now, two years later, Dillon is the full-blown beast coming off three consecutive 150-yard games.

“This’ll be a big test,” Satterfield said. “We’ll see where we stack up this week. I think we’ve done a pretty good job thus far. Akers at Florida State is a really talented running back, although a little bit different style than we’ll see this week. He had some pretty big runs against us.”

Louisville’s defense knows it will be watching that highlight over and over this week, and the team’s faithful will file into Cardinal Stadium remembering the exact spot where it occurred. There will be an intense, hot spotlight on the matchup because of its history, but it creates something juicy worth watching. Louisville wants to get back to its heights, and the trajectory is becoming more and more apparent. On Saturday, it’s a golden opportunity to prove just how close the Cardinals are to being back on defense, against an old nemesis and his offense’s power running reputation.

“There was never a lack of talent there,” Addazio said of Louisville. “That wasn’t the case. So they’re playing really well (now). The back end (is) extremely athletic, great space tacklers. I’m very, very impressed with this football team, and they’re only going to get better. They had a bye last week. I anticipate they’re only going to improve.”

Boston College and Louisville will kick off at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday from Cardinal Stadium in Louisville, Ky. The game can be seen on NESN as part of the ACC’s Regional Sports Network affiliates and can also be heard locally on radio on WEEI 93.7 FM for the BC Learfield IMG Sports Network.

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