Petrinos creating offensive juggernaut
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The second-floor ballroom at the Peabody Hotel is old-school opulent. A huge chandelier looms over a checkered marble floor. A painting of mallards landing on a lake hangs above a large fireplace.
Under different circumstances, this would be a room for smoking jackets and tumblers of scotch. Today it's a room for sweat suits and Gatorade bottles, and some off-key singing into a podium microphone by Louisville wide receiver Montrell Jones.
"J.R.," Louisville offensive coordinator Paul Petrino says to star wide receiver J.R. Russell. "Hat."
Russell removes the ballcap from his head, and the players' banter ceases. Without preamble, Petrino fires up a laptop and projector and gets down to business. A sexy showdown with Boise State in the Liberty Bowl is two days away, and today the Cards are locked in on the game plan.
The film room is where Louisville shines.
If you go by the ubiquitous All-America teams, Louisville has not become a 50-point-a-game offensive juggernaut because of talent. Tackle Travis Leffew was a third-team AP All-American, and that's pretty much it in terms of national recognition for the Cards. Quarterback Stefan LeFors might have performed heroically the past two seasons, but that wasn't enough for Conference USA to spell his name right on the league Player of the Year plaque he got Wednesday. "Stephan," it read, just one more dis for the scantly recruited senior to use to his advantage.
Despite the lack of acclaim, Louisville actually has tremendous depth of talent at the skill positions. But the way it comes together under the strategy-wonk brilliance of the brothers Petrino is what makes Louisville the hardest offense to stop in America.
"We're going to watch some of today's practice and some cutups (of Boise State's defense)," Petrino tells the players.
The practice that morning on a sloppy field at Christian Brothers High School had tickled both Petrinos -- Paul and big brother Bobby, the head coach. This was a big day -- "Perfect Thursday" in the Louisville lexicon, even on a Wednesday. With the Liberty Bowl to be played on Friday instead of Saturday, the weekly calendar has been accelerated a day -- and this is the day the Cardinals try to replicate their final play script without a hiccup.
"The day we put all the pieces together," Jones says.
And the result?
"We came pretty close," Paul Petrino says. "We had two plays not exactly perfect."
There was a pass thrown wide and a drop -- other than that, Louisville zipped through an up-tempo practice without incident. No fumbles, no blown alignments or assignments, no false starts -- despite the dizzying combinations of personnel hustling in and out on every play. Bobby Petrino signaled in the plays, just like in a game, and the Cards sprinted through them, and through the scout-team defense.
This was just another near-perfect Thursday for the near-perfect offense.
"I couldn't be more proud of how you practiced this week," Paul Petrino tells his players. "If we go out and play like you guys practiced today, you'll light it up."
He grabs a laser pointer and begins jabbing at the screen, going through plays. He illustrates their successes and the few failures against a scout-team defense replicating Boise State's alignments.
On the screen, Louisville is executing the plays it has scripted to begin the game against Boise -- and the script has been known to work. The Cards have scored six times in 11 games on their first possession.
After viewing their own practice, Petrino shows his players a splice of Boise's coverages and blitzes on certain down-and-distance situations. No players speak, none appear to be daydreaming and nobody is falling asleep. The vibe is professional.
Watching the tape, Petrino's enthusiasm is boiling over.
"He's probably the most excited guy on the team," Jones says.
Petrino jumps to his feet to caution the receivers about how to adjust their stances for the expected muddy Liberty Bowl field. He exhorts them to make the "effort plays" that can win a close game.
"We've got to run through tackles, receivers," he says. "Boom! Running through a tackle, that would make my New Year, right there."
"Be on ESPN," one of the wideouts chimes in.
"On ESPN all night long," Petrino answers.
Just about every play elicits an optimistic prediction from the coach:
"I think this play will be a great call for us."
"This could be a touchdown play."
"You guys, it's time to get excited. We've got some good stuff in here."
The optimism is justified, looking at the results. Nobody has come up with the defense that has been able to stop the Cardinals yet this season. The game plan advantage has belonged to Louisville's offense 11 straight games.
To the Petrino brothers, both sons of a coach, one of life's great joys is finding the linebacker-slot receiver mismatch, the numbers advantage on the strong side, the perfect audible for the blitz call. They live for the film room -- and live in it.
For Louisville's coaches, the average game week starts with a five-hour game plan session from 7 a.m. to noon. After a brief lunch break, it's back to the game plan until 6. After dinner is delivered to the football facility, the final scheming is done until roughly midnight.
"It gets a little rough toward the end of the night," Bobby Petrino admits.
The game plan is encased in three-ring binders and distributed to all the coaches and players. All the formations and plays are packaged by down and distance, and photographs of the defensive formations are included.
It's a daunting bit of homework -- and for quarterbacks Stefan LeFors and Brian Brohm, that's just the beginning. In their meeting room, a dozen poster boards hang on the walls, each one covered with Boise State defensive formations. They're quizzed on each of them -- and generally pass with flying colors. Brains are in abundance for Louisville at that most critical position.
As the week progresses, the playbook is steadily trimmed and polished. By Perfect Thursday, it's nearly a complete document.
"This is when it gets fun," Bobby Petrino says. "Real fun."
The final script is put together the morning before the game by Paul Petrino. The players will walk through the script in the stadium, then go back over it in the hotel, then run a final "clap drill" on game day in a hotel ballroom. (Which will come in a different hotel than the Peabody. Louisville's fans have begun streaming into the grand old edifice, so the team will relocate to quieter quarters the night before the bowl.)
For game day, the game plan is compacted from the three-ring binder to fit on a foldout page that Bobby Petrino keeps in his hands on the sidelines while signaling in the plays. Paul tapes the play list from each day's practice on the window in the press box and highlights the plays that worked well, in case they're needed during the game.
The Petrinos are anxious to match wits with Dan Hawkins and his undefeated Broncos. The matchup of top 10 teams could be the most enticing non-BCS bowl of them all, and is one of the biggest games in Louisville history. Despite a week of turmoil with Bobby Petrino having interviewed for the LSU job shortly after signing a new contract with Louisville, the coaches believe their team is ready.
"I think we should go out there and play well," Paul Petrino says. "I'll be real surprised if we don't."
Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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