LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) — Bobby Petrino built his coaching bona fides in large part by developing a reputation as an offensive guru.
It started when he was the offensive coordinator for John L. Smith at Louisville in 1998 when the Cardinals led the nation in scoring (40.4 ppg) and total offense (6,156 ypg), and continued after he landed his first college head coaching job with Louisville in 2003, a highly-productive stint that lasted four seasons.
Since he has returned, it's been more of the same. Until now.
Suddenly Petrino appears to have misplaced his offensive mojo after being involved either as a head coach or offensive coordinator in the top six seasons for total offense in Louisville history and six of its top seven for scoring.
But this season so far has been an outlier, and that has evidently come as much of a surprise to Petrino is anyone because he insisted throughout preseason practice that his year's offense starting the post-Lamar Jackson era wasn't going to be as good as the past three seasons. No, it was going to be even better.
In case your memory needs refreshing, here is what Petrino said in July at the ACC Media Days and subsequently repeated in one form or another several times.
"I expect us to be better" (offensively). “I expect us to be more balanced", and he then heaped praise on all parts of the offense — quarterback Jawon Puma Pass ("high expectations"); running backs ("a really good group, big, physical, fast"); wide receivers ("one of the strongest ever coming back"); offensive line ("physical and athletic"); and tight ends ("a great group").
"Yeah, I remember saying that in the ACC Media Days," Petrino acknowledged Monday.
Of course, anyone following the impotent Cards through their first three games knows that has hardly been the case. Far from it. Given their recent history, UofL's statistics look like a misprint. Going into Saturday's ACC opener against Virginia, here is where they rank in the major offensive categories among the 129 teams in the FBS:
Total offense — No. 119 (307.7 ypg). Scoring — 108 (21.7 ppg). Rushing offense — 98 (139.7 ypg). Passing offense — 112 (168.0 ypg)). Third down conversions — 119 (11/37, 30 percent). Sacks allowed — 85 (7 total).
Most alarmingly, those ugly numbers have come, for the most part, against weak competition.
Since Louisville opened with a 51-14 loss to No. 1 Alabama, it has played two of the worst teams in college football, one of which, Indiana State, resides in the lower-tier FCS. The other is Western Kentucky, which has lost eight of its last nine games and is listed on CBS Sports Bottom 25 ranking this week. The managed just 292 yards against a Hilltoppers team that surrendered 324 to Maine in a 20-17 win.
"I said I expected (the offense) to be better," Petrino said. "But I expect a lot of things, and I get some, and some I don't get. You have to have high expectations. But right now, we're obviously not getting that done, so we've got to regroup, do a better job of coaching and do a better job of playing and make sure we all stay together, which I'm happy about."
The failures of the offense have occurred all up and down the line, perhaps most notably dropped passes by that "strong" receiving corps. Petrino isn't without blame either since he calls all the plays. Big plays, a staple of Petrino attacks, have been AWOL, with the Cards posting one running play of 25 yards or more and six passing plays of more than 25 yards.
"Through three early games in my career, I don't know if we've had less explosive plays ever, and particularly with the receivers," Petrino says. "I expected to have more big plays than we're getting right now. That's something that has to change."
Changing quarterbacks might help. Redshirt freshman Malik Cunningham, who brings more energy and enthusiasm into the huddle than Pass does, has earned his first collegiate start against Virginia. But he can't do it by himself.
"We've got to play better football," Petrino says. "That's the bottom line. We've got to be able to take it from the practice field onto the game field with the right precision in the passing game and put it all together with the protection, the quarterback's vision, and timing, and receivers catching the ball and running after the catch."
And it has to start Saturday in Charlottesville, Va., in the first of eight ACC games, or they could be staring at their first losing season since 2009. There are no more automatic victories on Louisville's schedule.
Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college basketball and football for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.