LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) Bobby Petrino isn’t used to this.
The first-year Louisville coach with a reputation for creating high-powered offense has had to watch the Cardinals (5-2, 3-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) take small steps forward in his second stint with the program. The journey has been bumpy, as evidenced by five false start penalties in last week’s 23-17 loss at Clemson.
Sophomore Will Gardner and freshman Reggie Bonnafon have started multiple games at quarterback and relieved each other because of ineffective play. Some of their problems have been due to the absence of deep-threat receiver DeVante Parker, who has been out all season with a foot injury.
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The Cardinals are hopeful of smoothing things out Saturday against North Carolina State (4-3, 0-3), but the process has required more patience than Petrino expected.
Asked this week if he’s frustrated with the offense’s struggles, the coach said, ”I think you’re always a little bit frustrated. You keep understanding why, you know, what is causing the mistakes?
”We’re not blocking well up front, we’re not getting open fast enough, against tight coverage well enough. It all works together.”
The Cardinals believe playing together is key to improving, and naming Gardner as the starter again on Tuesday could mark the first step toward familiarity and continuity. Offensive coordinator Garrick McGee noted that dual-threat Bonnafon will play in certain situations.
No matter who has called the signals, their inexperience has shown. Gardner struggled with fumbles, deflected passes at the line and interceptions while Bonnafon has endured cold stretches.
That has been tough to endure for Petrino, who expects his QBs to execute right away. While that hasn’t always been the case, he sees positives and said ”we just need to get some consistency and some better execution, and not just at the quarterback position. We need the guys around him to play better.”
Gardner certainly seemed to inspire better play by Louisville after relieving Bonnafon in the second half against Clemson. He completed 10 of 16 passes for 150 yards and a touchdown and put the Cardinals within a yard of winning in the final minute by connecting with James Quick for 73 yards to the Tigers’ 8 and a hitting Kai De La Cruz for 7 yards to the 1.
Louisville lost a yard over the next three plays, a sequence including a third-down spike of the ball that Petrino took blame for in hopes of devising the right play that failed with a fourth-down incompletion.
”We’re hurting ourselves, that’s the biggest thing,” said Gardner, who returned from a two-game absence with a sore left knee. ”It’s not that we’re getting out there and guys are really stopping us, it’s just that we get out there and a guy will make a mental error this play and the next play it’ll be another guy.
”So it’s all 11 guys and when we get all 11 guys clicking, it’s going to be exciting to see what this offense does.”
Louisville senior right guard Jake Smith downplayed cadence differences between Bonnafon and Gardner as a reason for the false starts at Clemson. More than anything, he said the challenge has been individual play and inconsistency from snap to snap.
”You see guys playing hard out there; there are mistakes you have to correct,” Smith said. ”You see bright spots out there just like any team, but for us it’s all about consistency and cutting our mistakes.”
No doubt, some offensive falloff was expected following the departure of star quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who’s now starting for the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings. Louisville’s results are rankings of 71st in passing (229 yards per game) and 97th in total offense (370.6).
The Cardinals are confident of improving in their final five games and believe being home this weekend after four of five on the road can spark a turnaround. Senior wide receiver DeVante Parker might even return from a preseason foot injury that has hampered Louisville’s deep game.
Quick, who has broken some big plays in the interim, believes getting Parker back might change how defenses defend Louisville rather immediately impacting the offense.
McGee said simply that better execution might do better to keep Cardinals’ opponents honest, adding, ”we’re just concentrating on everybody, all 11 guys doing the right thing at the right time.”