Stronger finish, other fixes on Cards' minds at Notre Dame

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) -- Plastered on the walls throughout the Howard L. Schnellenberger football complex this week are signs that read, "Start Fast, Finish Strong," an appropriate theme for slumping Louisville's biggest challenge of the season, No. 4 Notre Dame (3-0, 2-0 ACC).


And just to make sure the Cardinals kept in mind during their preparations, the coaches repeated that mantra multiple times in practices and film sessions.


"We're trying to make that an emphasis for the players," UofL offensive coordinator Dwayne Ledford said. "That's a big part of it because if you look at it, that is what we've got to do a better job of."


Of course, that will be no easy task against one of the most complete teams in the nation as the Cards (1-3, 0-3) try to snap a three-game losing streak in Saturday's nationally televised 2:30 p.m. game (NBC) at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind.


So far the Cards are losing the kind of games they won during last year's surprising turnaround when they were able to either hang on or pull out several victories in the fourth quarter and became one of the most improved Power Five teams in the country.


In its last two losses against Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech, UofL has scored one touchdown in the second half. Going into the second half at Pitt, the Cards trailed only 20-17, but managed just three points the rest of the way in the 23-20 defeat. At Georgia Tech they were outscored 32-6 after intermission, including 20-0 in the fourth quarter of the 46-27 loss.


"We finished those kind of games out last year," UofL coach Scott Satterfield said.


Turnovers have been the biggest culprit among many, with UofL near the bottom in the FBS in that category, averaging nearly three per game.


"With 11 minutes to go (vs. Georgia Tech) we're winning with the ball at midfield," Satterfield said. "I would have lost a lot of money if I said we're going to lose by 19 at that point. We were driving down the field to get a score and we put the ball on the ground, and it just kind of unraveled from that point.


"Then you go back to the Pitt game and it's 23-20 for most of the fourth quarter. We had three opportunities and we turned the ball over twice. Think about last year, we won those games in the fourth quarter against Wake Forest, Boston College and Syracuse."


Besides hanging onto the football better against the Irish, Satterfield said another key will be connecting more often for big plays, another piece of 2019's success that has been missing this year with essentially the same personnel that provided a dynamic offense, headed by quarterback Malik Cunningham, running back Javian Hawkins and wide receiver TuTu Atwell.


Last season Louisville ranked third in the FBS with 28 plays of 40 yards or more and was sixth with 15 plays of 50-yards plus. But this year the Cards have had only five plays of 40 yards or more and aren't in the top 10 of any big plays statistic.


"We haven't done a good job of hitting on our deep shots and it seems like it's something different every time, a little bit of everybody that has attributed to some of those shots not being there," Satterfield said. "We've hit some, but we've got to hit them all because we don't have a whole lot of room for error.


"We have to be a big-play offense because we have big-play players. With the kind of speed we have, with some of the skill guys, we have to be able to utilize them. You go back and look at our last two games, if we're able to take care of those two things, turnovers and big plays, it's probably a different outcome and we're sitting here at 3-1, even with how poorly we've played defensively."


Notre Dame's offense isn't as explosive or exciting as UofL's potentially is, but the Irish are extremely efficient, consistently moving the ball while averaging 11.8 yards per point scored behind an offensive line that coach Brian Kelly has said is the best he has ever coached.


The Irish are averaging nearly seven yards per play, rank fifth nationally in rushing with 270.7 yards per game and have a trio of running backs who are each capable of producing 100-yard games.


Sophomore Kyren Williams has emerged as one of the nation's best runners, averaging 119.7 yards per game after rushing for 185 yards in a 42-26 win over Florida State last week. He is also dangerous as a receiver, helping him rank ninth in the country in all-purpose yardage at 157.7 ypg.


Then there's 5-star freshman recruit Chris Tyree, who gained 103 yards against the Seminoles, and junior C'Bo Flemister, who had 127 yards against South Florida and is averaging 9.2 yards per carry.


Three-year starting quarterback Ian Book is solid, albeit unspectacular. He has completed 63 percent of his passes for 608 yards and has thrown only one interception in 75 attempts. The Irish's best receiver is 6-2 senior Javon McKinley, who Kelly says "can't be defended" by anyone in college football. McKinley had five catches for 107 yards against the Noles.


"I mean, this is Notre Dame," Satterfield said. "They recruit some of the best players in the country year in and year out. They have depth. It's just an outstanding program. So as you look at them, there's not a ton of weaknesses on this football team."


But Satterfield is taking the long view of this season, concentrating on improving his own team's performance rather than putting a lot of emphasis on Notre Dame.


"For us, it's not about Notre Dame," Satterfield said. "It's about us and how well we can go out and prepare to play this game and then go out and actually execute and play the way we prepared. That's the biggest thing. Whether we win or lose, whatever the score is, to me what's going to help make this season for us is that we are coming out and we're playing the way we need to be playing and taking care of the football. Regardless of who we're playing, I think that mindset and execution will enable us to go out and play a lot better and win some football games this year."


After Saturday's game, Louisville's schedule lightens considerably, with its last six opponents having a combined ACC record of 6-12. Two of those teams, Wake Forest and Florida State, are winless in the league, and two others, Syracuse and Virginia, have won just once.

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 0926.russ.brown@gmail.com.

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