First-strike offense: Petrino excels at early TDs
For those of you who are going to Louisville's season football opener against Miami on Sept. 1 in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, you better not dilly-dally at your tailgate party. Best to get in your seat early. If you don't, you might miss Louisville's first touchdown.
A signature aspect of coach Bobby Petrino's explosive offense, including when he was calling plays in his first stint as a head coach at UofL a decade ago, was his ability to catch opposing defenses off guard and seize the upper hand early.
In the 50 games he coached at UofL from 2003-2006, the Cardinals scored on their opening drive nearly half the time, 24 games, getting mostly touchdowns sprinkled with two field goals en route to a 41-9 record.
Furthermore, even when the Cards failed to draw first blood, in many cases Petrino quickly adjusted and the offense swung into a devastating rhythm. That happened seven times. Typical was the 44-40 victory over Boise State in the 2004 Liberty Bowl when UofL was forced to punt on its first drive, then scored touchdowns on three of its next four possessions.
The scenario was much the same at Arkansas. And in Petrino's one season at Western Kentucky last year, the Hilltoppers scored on their initial drive in 10 of the 12 games, including the upset of Kentucky in Lexington.
Stefan LeFors, who was involved in his share of those early TDs as the Cards' starting quarterback in 2003 and 2004, vividly remembers one such instance in
in a 70-7 rout of Cincinnati in the '04 home finale at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.
After a touchback on the opening kickoff, Eric Shelton took a handoff from LeFors and raced 80 yards off right tackle for a touchdown. Eleven seconds had ticked off the clock.
"He was good," LeFors said of Petrino."All week, the first play was a run and Eric Shelton was going to hit it off right edge. We knew they were going to give us this particular (defensive) look, and regardless of where we took the opening possession, on our own 5 or the 20 or whatever, we were confident we were going to score.
"Sure enough, I don't think Eric was touched. Kolby (Smith) was the fullback and he couldn't find anybody to block, and Eric was rumbling down the sideline untouched. It wasn't like he had to break five tackles and count on a big block downfield. The hole was huge and that made it easy. It just another example of 'Hey, this guy (Petrino) knows what he's talking about.'"
That knowledge and confidence comes, coaches and players who have worked with Petrino say, from the coach's thorough preparation and his constant drive for perfection.
After studying countless hours of video of an upcoming opponent, Petrino and his staff huddle on Wednesday morning of game week and script the first eight plays, with Petrino asking each assistant for four plays they think would be effective. Then a decision is made.
"I try to make sure everyone gets involved, and it's a lot of fun for each coach," Petrino said. "The offensive line coach and running backs coach always say, run on the first play; everybody else says pass. Then I hear my mom back there saying, 'Throw it.' My dad was always an option guy; he knows you need balance. But my mom likes to see the ball in the air."
Whether the plays are runs or passes, they often succeed.
"He's been doing it a long time, and he's very, very good at it," said wide receivers coach Lamar Thomas, who held the same position on Petrino's WKU staff. "He just knows if they line up in a certain defense, we got you. We're going after your weakness, but if you consider it your strength, we still got you. It's very interesting to watch how it all comes together, but when it happens, it's like, 'Wow.'
"Then the defense tries more things and they get out of what they're used to doing. Usually, teams have certain defenses they consider themselves doing well. If we take their 'well' and turn it into 'bad,' they're going to try something else, and now they're really going to be awful.
"There's not too much Coach Petrino hasn't seen, and if he hasn't seen it, he's in that room studying film all night to figure out how to beat it. He's a very smart man, a very smart coach."
Quarterback Will Gardner, who will make his first collegiate start against Miami, can hardly wait for the first series to see if the Cards can take the wind out of the Hurricanes at the outset.
"That's exciting to come out and set the tone early," he said.
Remember, don't be late.