Louisville's ground game finally gets a spark

In a season in which Louisville has constantly been searching for answers on offense, no problem has loomed larger than the performance of the offensive line, but as The Courier-Journal writes, the past two games have offered some hope that things are finally headed in the right direction.

"Louisville is coming off two of its best rushing performances of the season – 217 yards against Syracuse and 266 against Virginia – as it prepares for a big game at Pittsburgh on Saturday. It’s a positive sign for the Cards, who have tried 10 different starters on the offensive line, including two true freshman tackles, a redshirt freshman guard and a sophomore guard much of the year."

Indeed, this is an excellent sign, but it comes with caveats.

First, Kyle Bolin has been the QB. There are still questions about whether that’s the long-term plan for Louisville or whether Reggie Bonnafon or Lamar Jackson will eventually work his way back into that job.

Secondly, Louisville hasn’t exactly played a murderer’s row of great defenses the last two games either. Syracuse and Virginia are among the league’s most generous defensive units.

If we dig a little deeper into those performances, however, there’s still some clear progress.

If we filter out sacks and QB runs and focus simply on the running backs, Louisville has averaged 7.05 yards per rush and 4.84 yards per rush before contact in the last two weeks, which both represent massive improvements over the first six games played against Power 5 foes (3.52 and 1.72, respectively). In fact, Louisville had almost as many rushing yards before contact from its running backs in the last two weeks (266) as it had in its first eight games (281).

And even compared to Syracuse and Virginia’s average performances vs. Power 5 running backs, Louisville’s yards-per-carry was 28 percent better and its yards-per-rush before contact was a whopping 56 percent better.

As the Courier-Journal notes, however, one of the big changes for the Cardinals has been fifth-year senior Aaron Epps, who has started in place of true freshman Kenny Thomas at right tackle. Indeed, Epps has made an enormous difference. In the first eight games of the season, Louisville running backs averaged 3.69 yards per carry running to the right side of the line. In the last two, they’ve averaged 10.35 yards.

But Epps won’t be around next season, and like the rest of the Cardinals’ young linemen, Thomas will need to make some massive improvements this offseason if Louisville wants to see this trend continue into 2016. For now, however, the Cardinals will be thrilled if the running game looks as sharp this week against Pitt — a team that just so happens to be allowing 3.74 yards per rush before contact to opposing Power 5 running backs, the worst rate of any defense Louisville has played so far.