LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) - It's no secret that Louisville football coach Scott Satterfield favors - no, make that demands - a run-first mentality, and the results through the first three games reflect that philosophy.
Heading into Saturday's Atlantic Coast Conference opener against Florida State (1-2), the Cardinals (2-1) lead the league in rushing at 260.3 yards per game and their 5.74 yards per carry are the second-most to Clemson. With 338 yards and a 6.9 yards per carry average, running back Javian Hawkins is second to Clemson's Cam Akers (387/5.6).
Furthermore, Louisville ranks sixth in the FBS in plays of over 50 yards with four, and 10th nationally in plays over 30 yards with 10.
Despite that success, though, Satterfield says the Cards' passing game has to improve so the offense doesn't lean quite as heavily on the running attack. If U of L can't prove they can complete passes consistently, particularly deep, opponents will simply stack the box to stop the run.
In last Saturday's 38-21 win over Western Kentucky, U of L attempted only 16 passes vs. 51 rushing plays, its most since 1996 when it ran 66 in a 27-3 win over Northern Illinois. On the season, UofL has rushed 136 times compared to 64 pass attempts. That's in stark contrast to last season when the split after three games was more balanced at 92 rushes vs. 82 passes.
"We have to get more comfortable throwing, where we feel good about calling some pass plays," Satterfield said. "(Dez) Fitzpatrick, we have to find some ways to get him the ball. We've got to do a better job and make it easier for the quarterbacks."
Fitzpatrick, a redshirt junior, is U of L’s top returning receiver from last year with 31 catches for 422 yards and three touchdowns. But he has just four receptions for 42 yards in the first three games, three of them coming against Eastern Kentucky. Fitzpatrick wasn't even targeted against the Hilltoppers.
Satterfield would also like to find a way to get senior Seth Dawkins going. He is the No.2 returning receiver with 29 catches for 329 yards, a 13.2 average, but has totaled just 39 yards on four receptions so far.
Little speedster Tutu Atwell has been U of L's only consistent receiving threat so far. The 5-9, 153-pound sophomore leads the ACC in touchdown catches with four and is third in yardage with 241 on 11 receptions, a 21.9 average that is tops in the league.
"They're talented receivers and we want to get them involved," Satterfield said of the trio. "We're doing a great job blocking on the perimeter. Hopefully, as we move forward, we'll be able to get those guys some touches."
But if the Cards are going to crank up their passing attack, they may need better protection for their quarterback, or better decision-making by the quarterback. Malik Cunningham was sacked three times against WKU.
"We always want to establish the run, make a statement," Satterfield said. "But we also want to get the ball out there to our receivers one-on-one. There's a fine line there because we want to stay away from sacks. Where the calculation comes in is do we have time to throw it and how are we going to get a guy one-on-one and free him up? That's what we're trying to find.
"But we're not going out and throwing it 45 times a game. I think if we did that, we're not going to be in those games. We have to play to our strengths. We're trying to win football games. If throwing it 45 times would win us games, we would do it. But we feel if we can run the football and take our shots when we can, it gives us a great chance to win."
Offensive coordinator Dwayne Ledford says it's simply a matter of execution and points to Atwell's big day against WKU when his four catches for 141 yards and three touchdowns included a 62-yard TD from Evan Conley.
"You saw Tutu had a big day," Ledford said. "A lot of those plays we were able to execute everywhere across the board. I think we have special players on the outside at receiver and we just have to execute when their play is called. To me that has to be first and foremost, be it from protection or a read."
Louisville ranks 13th in the ACC in passing offense with an average of 186.3 yards per game, but Atwell says he and the other receivers aren't bothered by their lack of production.
"As long as we are winning and moving the ball, everybody is fine," he said. "The run game is working, so why stop?"
Florida State may provide a good opportunity for the Cards to showcase their receivers and passing attack more than they have to this point, and Satterfield hinted that could be part of the game plan.
The Seminoles' pass defense ranks last in the ACC. They are giving up 314.3 yards per game, 7.3 yards per attempt, and opponents are completing 64.3 percent of their passes.
"They can't get down," Satterfield said. "As a receiver, you want to get some action and get the ball. I understand that completely. We want to get them the ball and eventually we will. I promise you there will come a time when they have to make plays for us. I love the way they are preparing. I know we will have to call their number, and it's a great chance it could be this weekend. And when their number gets called, they have to make the play."
Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college football and basketball for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.