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Sorta-Previewing Louisville's Rushing Offense

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I usually hesitate to break down opposing team's schemes and personnel. Invariably, the opponent's SB Nation site does a better job analyzing their own team than I'll ever do, so I stick to the advanced stats and rudimentary analysis. Having said that, I have watched most of 4-5 UofL games this season, so I'm going to give it a shot this week. Take the following with a grain of salt, and UofL fans (if you're reading this), I welcome corrections/context in the comments.

Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

Louisville's offense has a ranking of 6% (good for 37th in the country) in F+, and S&P+ rank their offense at 25th in the country. That's a fairly large improvement from how their offense looked in September. Even five to six weeks ago, the UK defense versus UofL offense looked like it would have been competitive on paper. UK's defense was never great this season, as we well know, but it could limit average offenses to the 17-24 point range; however, holding UofL to that point total now seems far less probable given Petrino's offense beginning to click.

The addition of receiver DeVante Parker coming off his injury was sure to be a boon. His presence alone opens up the passing game, and draws defenders away from the line of scrimmage. Simultaneously, the UofL offensive line that struggled at the beginning of the year has improved in the back half of the season. Reggie Bonnafon is also playing well as a true freshman. His numbers aren't startling, but if you watched the Notre Dame game you couldn't help but be impressed with his poise and ability to scramble for first downs.

All of which is a lead-up to why I think UofL's offense has improved as much as it has: they're much better at running the ball in November than they were in September. Stoops:

...I don't think it's any secret that Coach Petrino does a nice job of setting up his run game and scheming the run game, not so much just like some teams just are gonna line up and pound you with certain run games. They scheme their run game really well. They have some really good boots and play actions off of everything, and they keep you off balance.

The Numbers

UofL has had impressive performances of late against rushing defenses comparable or better than Kentucky's. UofL's Rushing Offense S&P+ stands at 19th in the country. Here is how it has performed against the rushing defenses it's faced in the last month.

Opponent S&P+ Rushing Defense National Ranking Outcome
Notre Dame 36th 229 yards
Boston College 28th 166 yards
Florida State 73rd 158 yards
NC State 101st 166 yards

For context, UK is currently ranked 69th in S&P+ Rushing Defense. Discouraging for UK is how much better UofL has gotten against increasingly tougher competition. For example, the UofL team that only ran for 166 yards against NC State's 101st ranked rushing defense, would have probably rushed for fewer than 166 yards against Boston College's 28th ranked rush defense two games prior. Likewise, UofL would probably run for over 220 yards against NC State's defense now.

Basic Scheme and Personnel Overview

Bobby Petrino's offenses are more physical than he seems to get credit for in most places. He likes to pull the center and guards on power blocking plays. Occasionally, even the tackles will pull and serve as lead blockers for the running backs. Offensive guard Jake Smith had an outstanding game against Florida State, and he was pulling and performing fold blocks for much of the night. Smith is just as much a weapon as any skill player.

Against UK, he'll be targeting the outside linebackers (Bud Dupree, Jason Hatcher, or Jabari Johnson), while the tackle will down block Za'Darius Smith or Mike Douglas. UK's outside linebackers have done a decent job at squeezing down on oncoming blockers, and tightening the running backs lane, but they aren't great about shedding the block and making the tackle within a yard or two of the line of scrimmage.

Contributing to the successful running game are three running backs that over the course of the season have shared carries: Michael Dyer, Dominique Brown, and Brandon Radcliff, though Radcliff and Dyer seem to be getting the lion's share as of late. Dyer is playing well recently, but Radcliff has impressed me all season. They play hard and are physical runners who read their blocks well. Each are capable of creating explosive plays.

Once the running game is established, Petrino will dial up his play-action package, or his favored shallow cross concept. Petrino stays in "11 Personnel" (one running back, one tight end) for the most part, which gives him the freedom to reasonably call either a running or passing play making the offense tougher to defend. On top of all of this is Bonnafon's ability to scramble and create with his legs. UK must maintain gap discipline when pass rushing or Bonnafon will go to work.

Petrino is always looking for a tactical edge provided by a defense. For example, he'll show a single-back Trips look, and if the defense shifts over to compensate for the three receivers, he'll call a power run play to the weak-side.  He'll try to win the numbers game in other formations too:


Conclusion

UK's defense will be hard-pressed to stop UofL's rushing attack if they play like they have for the last half of the season. Parker's presence on the edge demands respect from a corner back and a safety, so UofL is already winning the numbers game in the box. Too much focus on stopping the run opens up play-action opportunities for tight end Gerald Christian (who I think is heck of a player and I hope he gets his deserved praised by UofL fans) or other UofL receivers.

For UK, the name of the game is probably pretty simple. Schematically, try to slow down Parker, attempt to confuse Bonnafon into throwing errant passes or picks, and try to exploit some of the offensive line personnel with various stunts and blitzes.

But this game will be won on simple fundamentals because those are what will matter when stopping UofL's rushing attack. The defense has to tackle like it did at the beginning of the season, it has to maintain gap integrity, and it must win the majority of its one-one-one match-ups.

I don't offer a panacea, not there even is one for Petrino offenses anyway. When UofL has lost this year, to teams better than UK it must be said, it was because they lost their individual match-ups along the line of scrimmage.

That's the road map, but UK players are going to have to drive themselves.