By Bennett Conlin
A game against an ACC opponent is a special occasion. To celebrate JMU’s showdown with Louisville we reached out to Mike Rutherford, manager of CardChronicle.com and host of “The Mike Rutherford Show.”
Mike knows Louisville well, and he’s an enjoyable radio listen/Twitter follow even if you don’t like Louisville. He’s also a fan of the Detroit Lions, which we love to hear. I feel your pain, Mike.
Fortunately, we avoid any conversations related to the Lions. Instead, we talk about two competent college football programs.
Let’s start with JMU. How do Louisville fans view this game, which is sandwiched between Wake Forest and Clemson? Is there interest? Concern about an upset? Expecting a blowout win? I’m interested in how Louisville fans view a team new to the FBS level with no history against the Cards.
Mike Rutherford: I think more than anything Louisville fans are annoyed by the fact that it was scheduled in the first place.
The program is riding the first three-game conference winning streak of the Scott Satterfield era and they have a brutal three-game stretch against Clemson, NC State and Kentucky to end the season. Basically, this would be the perfect spot for a true buy game against an FCS walkover. It would be great to have an opponent that would almost guarantee your ability to keep your positive momentum going, and also maybe the chance to get some guys a little rest in the second half before this grueling end of the season.
Instead, former AD Vince Tyra scheduled James Madison, a program that at the time was one of the best in the FCS and which now is one of the best Group of 5 teams in the FBS. It’s not ideal.
I certainly think Louisville fans expect to win, but they know it’s not going to be the type of game they’ve seen against opponents like Indiana State, Murray State, Eastern Kentucky, etc. in recent years. Maybe the best thing for this team and for this fan base was the fact that James Madison made it into the top 25 earlier this year. It’s pretty impossible to look over any opponent that you saw scrolling across the ESPN bottom line with a little number next to their name just a few weeks ago.
Plenty of college football fans know Malik Cunningham is awesome. But the Cardinals’ defense seems MUCH improved from recent years. Was this expected entering the season? And what’s changed to help Louisville become a top-tier ACC defense?
MR: It was certainly hoped for, but after what felt like 10 straight offseasons of hearing that this was the year where the defense was “going to take a step forward” and that not happening, I think any Louisville fan who tells you they expected this is lying to you.
The biggest change for the defense in recent weeks has been not giving up explosive plays. Those killed them in the losses to Florida State and Boston College, games where they were solid for about 90% of the night but got destroyed by the 10% where they weren’t. They’ve been consistently great at getting into the backfield and either making plays behind the line of scrimmage or forcing opposing quarterbacks into hurried mistakes.
The defensive line is vastly improved from the last three seasons under DC Bryan Brown, but the star of the defense has unquestionably been linebacker Yasir Abdullah. He’s been all over the field all season long, and I’d expect that to be the case once again Saturday night.
The secondary struggled at the beginning of the year but has been tremendous during this three-game winning streak. Moving All-ACC CB Kei’Trel Clark inside seems to have worked wonders for his game, and Temple transfer MJ Griffin getting healthy and onto the field at safety also seems to have provided the unit with a significant boost.
Okay now to Mr. Cunningham and company. What makes the Louisville offense dangerous?
MR: For the first time in the Satterfield era, it’s the offense that hasn’t been holding up its end of the bargain more times than not this season.
Cunningham is still making crazy plays in the open field, but his passing numbers are the worst they’ve been in any of his four seasons as Louisville’s full-time starter. I think the biggest reason for that is U of L’s lack of weapons at WR. The team’s top two receivers (outside of tight end Marshon Ford) from last season both transferred out of the program, and the already depleted unit has dealt with injuries throughout the year. Central Arkansas transfer Tyler Hudson has been solid, but there aren’t the dynamic playmakers on the outside who can consistently get separation or turn a simple 5 yard catch into a 60-yard score like Cunningham has had in years past.
The run game, per usual, has been mostly solid. In addition to Cunningham, Louisville has five running backs who have all proven that they can get the job done at various points this season. Tennessee transfer Tiyon Evans began the year as the starter but has missed times with injuries. He returned last week against Wake Forest and had probably his best game of the season. Assuming he’s healthy again, I’d expect him to be the workhorse against JMU.
A few weeks ago Scott Satterfield seemed like he was on the hot seat. Now the Cardinals are the Cheez-it Bowl National Team of the Week. What’s the feeling among fans about Satterfield’s future?
MR: It’s certainly much better than it was, but there’s still definitely a sense of “I want to see more.”
Louisville is a program that, in the last 20 years, has finished in the top 10 nationally multiple times, been in the College Football Playoff hunt, been in the BCS national title game hunt, had a Heisman Trophy winner, won the Sugar and Orange Bowls, and had several double-digit win seasons. At some point, the fan base wants to see the Cardinals returning to that level. Finishing this season strong — coupled with what he’s doing in recruiting right now — would be a nice message from Satterfield that, eventually, he’s the guy who can get U of L back to that place.
Score prediction time! Hit us with a score prediction for Saturday.
MR: I’m expecting it to be a competitive, maybe sort of uneven game. I think it’s a single-digit margin going into the 4th quarter, but ultimately the home team makes enough plays to avoid what would be a catastrophic loss for the program and its head coach.
Give me Louisville 30, James Madison 20.