Cards’ offensive line has come long way; Chandler honored

Published 6:00 pm Thursday, October 28, 2021

By Russ Brown

Kentucky Today

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) — It’s rare for an offensive line, which operates in relative anonymity, to receive public praise from anyone other than a quarterback or running backs, most of whom go out of their way to do so because they know those guys in the tranches have a lot to do with their production.

It’s rarer yet when an offensive lineman earns any sort of honor. And even more rare when that fellow is wearing a Louisville uniform.

But it happened Monday when UofL’s starting offensive guard Caleb Chandler was named the ACC Co-Offensive Lineman of the Week after the line’s dominant performance in Saturday’s 28-14 win over Boston College.

The Cardinals (4-3, 2-2) rushed for a season-high 331 yards while averaging 7.0 yards per carry and a season-best four touchdowns against a BC defense that was among the best in the ACC against the run (126 yards per game). The total was their most since getting 370 yards in a 56-34 win over Syracuse on Nov. 23, 2019.

Quarterback Malik Cunningham rushed for 133 yards and freshman running back Trevion Cooley added 112. They were the first UofL duo to gain 100 yards or more in the same game since Malik Williams (180) and Lamar Jackson (120) did it against the Orange in a 56-10 rout on Nov. 18, 2017.

Chandler, a redshirt junior, is one of the Louisville’s most experienced linemen — along with senior center Cole Bentley — having started 33 games during his career. He graded out at 93 percent.

“They’ve been playing really well,” coach Scott Satterfield said during his weekly news conference Monday afternoon. “I thought they played their best game against BC. They opened u some big holes. I think it gives us confidence to know that no matter what we call we will be in plus yardage. That keeps you on the sticks and at least gives you an opportunity to pick up a third down.”

First-year offensive line coach Jack bicknell Jr. had praised UofL’s group prior to the season, going so far as to predict that they would be the best he had ever coached during his long career. The line was expected to be the strength of an offense that started the year with inexperienced running backs and an almost-new receiving corps.

However, despite returning four starters, they didn’t come close to achieving that preseason billing in the first two games against Ole Miss and Eastern Kentucky.

“We know we’re not living up to expectations and some things aren’t going our way,” Chandler said at the time. “It hurts looking at that on film. But we know what we have; we just have to be consistent and on the same page. We’re going to be just fine.”

Chandler was right. The line has steadily improved since then, helping the Cards rush for over 200 yards in three consecutive games. And their progress since last season has been nothing short of remarkable. UofL was among the worst in the country in 2020 in sacks allowed and tackles for loss allowed. Now they’re No. 1 in the ACC and tied for No. 14 nationally in sacks surrendered with eight. They’re tied for 24th in tackles for loss allowed, second in the ACC only to Clemson’s 20.

“We challenge the offensive line every week to put our offense on their back, so when the passing game isn’t working, we are able to lean on our running game,” Cunningham said. “That’s what we did (vs. BC).”

The 7.0 yards per rush against the Eagles marked the third game in a row UofL has increased its production, after averaging 4.8 yards per carry against Wake Forest and 6.8 against Virginia. Cooley thinks the linemen were simply going through an adjustment period under Bicknell early in the season.

“Hats off to those guys,” Cooley said after Saturday’s game. “It’s hard switching from one coach to another on short notice, right before the season starts. Those guys work hard. (Against BC), our offensive line came out with the mindset of ‘You can’t stop me. You’re going to have to bust me in the mouth to stop me.’ That’s what helped us become so successful.”

The offensive line will face an even bigger challenge Saturday against North Carolina State in Raleigh, N.C. The Wolfpack are the stingiest defensive team in the ACC, allowing just 294.7 yards total offense per game, including only 92.83 and one touchdown on the ground.

However, NC State lost its best defender, linebacker Isaiah Moore, Saturday night in a 31-30 loss at Miami. Moore was beginning to establish himself as a candidate for ACC Defensive Player of the Year. He was the team’s No. 2 tackler, including 20-plus tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage and multiple pass breakups.

“He’s obviously the heartbeat of our defense,” defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said.

NC State was ranked No. 25 in the AP poll last week, but fell out Monday following the loss to Miami.

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.