Game time is set for 6pm (CST) at Papa John's Stadium and will be aired nationally on ESPNU.
The Cardinals (8-1, 4-1) are riding high these days under head coach Charlie Strong, who's 33-15 over his three plus seasons in Louisville and has them ranked 20th in the latest BCS standings. With all of the ‘hoopla' surrounding Heisman candidate Teddy Bridgewater and the Cardinals dynamic offense, it's their defense that impresses me the most when watching their games and stat sheet. This of course is no surprise as Strong was a former safety himself at Central Arkansas and has coached each defensive position over his 27 year career as an assistant before being named as the Cardinals head coach prior to the 2010 season. His defensive coordinator, Vance Bedford, who like Strong played in the secondary (3 seasons as a starting corner at the University of Texas) believes in playing to the strengths of his unit which include playing very aggressively up front. The Cards front 7 is a physical unit which brings pressure by playing "games" up front via twists and stunts and though Bedford loves to blitz, he'll disguise when and where it's coming from by having his front 4 rush from a standing position. The fourth year defensive coordinator also loves to fake pressure by walking his two hard hitting safeties up to the line of scrimmage before having them fall back into coverage just as the ball's snapped, which I anticipate happening a lot Saturday evening versus the Cougars true freshmen quarterbacks. By faking and disguising the blitz, the defense baits opposing QBs into making bad throws as the Cards have forced 13 interceptions this season.
The defensive unit is only allowing opponents to score 10.6 points per game which is tied for first nationally with Alabama and obviously first in the American. They're second nationally, and first in the American, against the run allowing opponents to rush for an average of only 78 yards per game. If that wasn't enough, they're also second nationally and first in the American in passing yards allowed per game (165.7) and total defense (243.7). Not to be outdone by those stats, the Cards are third nationally and first in the American in sacks (32) and third nationally on opponents third down conversions as they allow opposing offenses to convert on only 27-percent, while also ranking eighth nationally with 73 tackles-for-loss. As with all great defenses, everything for the Cards starts up front led by defensive ends Marcus Smith (6-foot-3, 260 pounds, Sr.), and Lorenzo Mauldin (6'4, 243, Jr.). Both ends can bull rush opposing offensive tackles yet have the quickness to fly by them causing havoc in opponents' backfields as Smith leads the nation with 10.5 sacks with 13.5 tackles-for-loss ranking him eighth while Mauldin ranks 13th with 7.5 sacks and 29th in TFL with 11 from the opposite end spot. Mauldin also knows how to use his height as he's batted down 3 passes and adds 3 forced fumbles to an impressive resume, but not to be outdone by Smith's 2 forced and recovered fumbles on the season. Joining the two dominating ends are defensive tackles Roy Philon (6'3, 290, Sr.) and Brandon Dunn (6'3, 300, Sr.). Normally your defensive tackles won't look impressive on paper as their job is to tie up opposing offensive linemen so their ends and linebackers can make tackles, but this isn't your average two-gap duo as Philon has 8 TFL and 3 sacks with Dunn adding 4 and 1 respectively. Bedford usually rotates 8 to 10 linemen throughout the game to keep them all fresh, keeping up the pressure non-stop.
The Cougars offensive game plan by coordinator Doug Meacham will need to incorporate the quick passing game as the offensive line of (from left to right); DeAnthony Sims (6'3, 320, Sr.), Rowdy Harper (6'6, 295, Jr.), Bryce Redman (6'1, 285, Jr.), Kevin Forsch (6'3, 307, Sr.) and Zach Johnson (6'6, 301, So.) don't have the lateral quickness to keep Louisville's edge rushers from causing chaos in the Cougars backfield. The Coogs must be able to establish a running game via their zone rushing schemes, especially early on as doing so helps the offense twofold; 1.) It keeps pressure off of the Cougar QBs and 2.) It keeps UH's defense off the field against a physical ball control offense. I mentioned in my UCF ‘game analysis' piece about how this had disappointed me as Meacham waited until the second half to try to establish a run game, especially between the tackles, as the offense faced too many second/third and long downs last week leading to a season low 14 points.
Low and behold, head coach Tony Levine validated those concerns during Tuesday's weekly media press conference when he said (via uhcougars.com), "Earlier in the year we ran the ball a little bit more, most recently we have not as much. We need to get back to doing that. Certainly we've got talented running backs, specifically Kenneth Farrow (5'11, 216, So.) and Ryan Jackson (5'10, 183, So). Our offensive line has really played their best football together right now at this point of the season. We've got to do a better job of establishing the run, taking a little bit of pressure off our young quarterbacks. Even in this last game we had a couple wrinkles in there that we were successful with, probably didn't run it enough, and that's something we need to do not only to help our offense and take pressure off but our defense as well and have a little more time of possession and let them stand on the sidelines a little bit longer than they have been." Behind Jackson's average of 60 rushing yards (on 12 carries) per game added to Farrow's 57 (on 10 carries) the Coogs are averaging nearly 160 yards per game on the ground which ranks them 75th nationally but 3rd in the American.
Trying to stop the Houston rushing attack will be a Louisville linebacker unit who's not only physically imposing but fast flowing to the ball. It seems that with the move to the American this season the Coogs face a bigger and more intimidating Mike (middle) linebacker each week, and Saturday night unfortunately will be no different as the Cards defense is led by Preston Brown. The 6'0, 260 pound senior is your typical run stopping Mike linebacker as he leads the defense in tackles with 65 (42 solo) and adds 11 TFL, 4 sacks, 3 forced and 1 fumble recovery. He's flanked by Sam (strongside) linebacker George Durant (6'0, 245, Sr.), who has 13 tackles as he's just started 5 games, and James Burgess (6'0, 214, So.) at the Will (weakside) spot, who's more than made up for Durant's lack of production with 49 tackles (including 6 for loss), 4 pass breakups along with one interception, forced and recovered fumble.
If the Cougars are able to establish a true running game, giving the offense manageable second and third downs, a lot of pressure should be alleviated from the shoulders of QB John O'Korn (6'4, 205, Fr.). A run game will also allow O'Korn to use play-action to get the ball down field, which wasn't done very effectively versus UCF. Plus with the linebackers and safeties paying more attention to Farrow and Jackson, O'Korn and fellow true freshman QB Greg Ward Jr. (5'10, 175, Jr.), who will hopefully see some action early on, will have more room to run through the second level of the Cardinals defense via QB keepers off read-option fakes or simple draw plays.
O'Korn needs to play more consistent despite such gaudy numbers for a true freshman, 23 TDs to only 6 interceptions while averaging 263 passing yards per game and completing over 63-percent of his passes. The Florida Ft. Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas product still needs to balance knowing when to throw the ball away versus forcing passes into coverage as the Cards ball hawking secondary will try to bait him into several bad throws Saturday night. He also needs to know that it's ok to slide as this physical Louisville defense will try to get as many shots in on him as possible. Of course this is also one of his more enduring qualities, in that he's able to take a shot yet get right back up and make the next throw. This kind of leadership trait is invaluable for an offense, not to mention that his ability to wiggle out of would-be sacks to make a throw down the field isn't something that can really be game-planned against for the most part.
As for O'Korn's targets, slot receiver Daniel Spencer (5'11, 195, Jr.) is probable though he has a sore shoulder, according to Levine. This could have an adverse effect on the Cougars offense as Spencer is one of two ‘safety outlets' for O'Korn as he's second in receptions with 36, yards with 575 and TDs receiving with 5, all behind fellow slot receiver Deontay Greenberry's (6'3, 198, So.) 70, 1042 and 9 respectively. Both are great in YAC (yards after the catch) yardage as they can both take a simple 10 yard quick slant or crossing pattern and take it 60 yards to the house. Outside receivers Xavier Maxwell (6'1, 180, Sr.), Aaron Johnson (6'0, 207, Jr.), Demarcus Ayers (5'10, 173, Fr.) and Markeith Ambles (6'2, 215, Jr.) must get more involved in the offense, especially if Spencer's shoulder is more injured than the Cougars coaching brass lets on. The unit must also block better on the perimeter and down the field on the various screen passes and outside zone running plays against a sure tackling Louisville secondary. The most important aspect of the game for the Cougars wide receivers will be to simply catch the ball as easy drops takes the offense out of its rhythm.
Calvin Prior (6'2, 208, Jr.) and Hakeem Smith (6'1, 179, Sr.) are two versatile hard hitting safeties who can either play in the box and stop the run or excel in coverage as Prior, at free safety, patrols the middle of the Cards defense and will no doubt be laying the lumber on any Cougar receivers who dare cross the middle of the field as his 52 tackles (including 4 for loss) along with 6 passes defended, 3 interceptions and 2 forced fumbles attests. Smith, at strong safety, adds 30 tackles and 4 passes defended and a sack. The Cards two starting corners, Terrell Floyd (5'10, 201, Jr.) and Charles Gaines (5'11, 174, So.) excel in either man or zone coverage as Floyd leads the defense with 4 interceptions and is tied with Prior and Gaines with 6 passes defended while Gaines also adds 3 interceptions. The aggressive nature also manifests itself in the Cards secondary as both Floyd and Gaines have a "pick-6" on the season as well.
As stacked as the Cardinals defense is, their offense looks just as salty under 3rd year coordinator Shawn Watson, who believes in a simple ball control attack that puts pressure on opposing defenses by continually ‘moving the chains' by producing manageable 3rd downs due to a physically punishing running game and a controlled ‘West Coast' passing attack that isn't afraid to attack vertically down field. The offense is led by QB Teddy Bridgewater (6'3, 196, Jr.) who's completing a Case Keenum-esque 71.4 percent of his passes (200 of 280) while averaging 316 yards through the air (ranking him 10th nationally and 2nd in the American) with an unbelievable 8:1 TD-to-Int ratio (24 TDs to only 3 interceptions). The Cards are averaging 328 yards passing (11th and 2nd), 152.7 rushing (83rd and 4th) for a total of 481.3 (21st and 2nd) while averaging 38.4 points per game (18th and 1st).
Bridgewater, a one-time Miami commit, has full control of the offense and will usually go to the line of scrimmage with two plays, calling what he thinks gives the offense the best chance at success depending on what the defense is showing him. Teddy ‘Ballgame' is also accurate on the run as Watson will have him rolling out of the pocket via bootlegs and is a master at getting safeties to move where he wants them to. Watson has said that while it's his receivers' job to beat the cornerback, it's his QB's job to beat the safety with his eyes and pump fakes. Bridgewater is also responsible for changing the protections at the line of scrimmage, which is usually reserved for the center, but with his high football IQ Watson sees no problems with putting a lot on his star QB.
Houston defensive coordinator David Gibbs must give Bridgewater and the Cardinal's offense different looks as far as pressure is concerned as too much blitzing will get the secondary beat deep, yet the Cards will easily use their short controlled passing game to march down the field while using the clock as they're 8th nationally and first in the American in time of possession holding onto the ball for 33 minutes, 24 seconds of game time on average. This is much easier said than done with an offensive line that averages around nearly 320 pounds per man as the Cardinals offensive line of (from left to right); James Brown (6'6, 350, Jr.), John Miller (6'2, 321, Jr.), Jake Smith (6'3, 312, Jr.), Kamran Joyer (6'3, 282, Sr.) and Ryan Mack (6'5, 319, So.) have allowed only 15 sacks all season, ranking them 41st and 3rd. This against a Houston defensive front that averages 275 pounds per man amongst its starters of Eric Braswell (6'5, 268, Jr.) and Trevor Harris (6'5, 233, Jr.) at end and Joey Mbu (6'3, 312, Jr.) and Tomme Mark (6'3, 288, So.) at tackle. This average gets even smaller when reserves Cameron Malveaux (6'6, 252, RFr.) and Tyus Bowser (6'3, 226, Fr.) enter the game at end with Jeremiah Farley (6'0, 283, Jr.) and B.J. Singleton (6'4, 285, RFr.) spelling the starters at tackle. The line must use its speed as they simply won't be able to bull rush Louisville's massive front and cannot afford to allow Bridgewater to stand tall in the pocket or he'll pick their defense apart. The defense must force the Cards Heisman contender to pass before he wants to by getting hard shots in on him, though he's shown such physicality hasn't affected his decision making as he shows the same type of toughness that O'Korn possesses.
One reason for Louisville's success passing the ball is because of Bridgewater's ball distribution to his receivers as 8 Cardinals have between 10 and 40 receptions so far this season. The two receivers who probably stand out the most are Damian Copeland (6'1, 188, Sr.) and DaVante Parker (6'3, 209, Jr.), with the latter being a great redzone target with his size. Copeland leads the unit with 569 yards on 39 receptions for a 14.6 yard per catch average with 4 TDs. Parker leads the offense with 8 TD receptions and is second in both receptions (32) and yards (528). Eli Rogers (5'10, 182, Jr.) sees plenty of action when the Cards go with 3-receiver formations and is third on the team with 31 receptions for 422 yards and also has 4 TD catches. Watson has the offense use multiple formations that make use of both a fullback and often starts each game in two tight end sets as University of Florida transfer Gerald Christian (6'3, 242, Jr.) and Ryan Hubbell (6'5, 227, Sr.) are more than effective in the passing game as Christian is fourth in both receptions (23) and yards (364) and is tied with Copeland and Rogers with 4 TDs while Hubbell adds 183 yards on 10 receptions for an impressive 18.3 yards per catch average.
A Cougars secondary that allows 277.6 yards passing per game (117th and 7th) will have its hands full especially with senior cornerback Zach McMillian (5'10, 178) suspended for the first half due to last week's bogus targeting call. William Jackson (6'1, 175, So.) will take McMillian's spot starting opposite of Thomas Bates (5'10, 183, Sr.) with Turon Walker (5'11, 190, Jr.) rotating in as the nickel back. The foursome must be sure tacklers, especially with cushion they give opposing receivers when Gibbs employs them in his cover 1- high safety or cover-2 zone looks. Bates, McMillian and Walker all have 2 interceptions to Jackson's 1 while Bates leading the team with 9 passes defended, though he's often covering bigger receivers. Safeties Trevon Stewart (5'9, 192, So.) and Adrian McDonald (5'10, 191, So.) must play better in coverage as Stewart was burned more than a few times against UCF slot receivers as he looks more comfortable playing in the box which as he often allows his instincts for the ball to shine through with his team leading 4 interceptions and fumbles recovered along with being second with 7 passes defended, not to mention his 71 tackles. McDonald's not too far behind with 67 tackles and 3 picks himself and is often the last line of defense as the high safety when Stewart stalks the box as the eighth man.
While most think of Bridgewater and his plethora of wide receivers when thinking of the Cardinals offense, in reality they're a pro-style ball control offense who loves to establish the run first behind a trio of running backs who love to impose their will with their different qualities. Dominique Brown (6'2, 216, Jr.) is a physical downhill runner who enjoys contact yet is patient enough to allow cutback lanes to open up, which is something Gibbs should be concerned about as UCF's Storm Johnson burned the Cougars front 7 numerous times last week as over pursuit by the over eager UH defenders forced them out of their assigned rush lanes. Brown leads the Louisville backs with a 6.1 yards per carry average, with most of them coming after contact. For the season Brown averages 57 yards per game (513 yards on 84 carries) with 4 TDs on the ground. Senorise Perry (6'0, 187, Sr.) is a shifty back who can stop on a dime and change motions fluidly as he leads the offense in carries (99 for 482 yards) and rushing TDs with 6. Michael Dyer (5'9, 215, Jr.), was the MVP of the 2010 BCS National Championship game for the Auburn Tigers before transferring twice for off the field trouble, hasn't seen any action over the past two games and has 223 yards on 44 carries with 2 TDs for the season. Lamar Atkins (5'11, 246, RFr.) was moved from linebacker a few weeks back and is now a fullback who is used in short yardage situations as Watson will often use shifts and motions to overload a particular side of the line, often out of the I-formation.
Slowing down this diverse Louisville run game will be the main responsibility of the Cougars linebackers, led by Mike backer Derrick Mathews (6'0, 214, Jr.) and Will backer Efrem Oliphant (6'1, 230, Jr.), who surprisingly leads the team in total tackles with 85 (to Mathews 82) and 10 TFL (to Mathews 8). Both Mathews Oliphant use their speed to shoot the gaps as Gibbs often uses them on run or pass blitzes through the ‘A' gaps as they lack the size (especially Mathews) to take on bulky offensive linemen at the point of attack. Mathews is tied with Bowser (the freshman end) for the team lead in sacks with 5 and also has 2 forced and recovered fumbles along with a pick-6, while Oliphant has 2 sacks, forced fumbles and a fumble recovery to show for his aggressiveness. Strongside backer Steven Taylor (6'0, 211, RFr.) has also been a pleasant surprise with 64 tackles, including 5 TFL, 3 sacks, and 2 fumble recoveries while performing more than effectively in zone coverage with 5 passes defended over the middle of the field. The Coogs defense allows opponents to rush for 149.1 yards per game which ranks them 46th and 7th. Overall they allow 426.7 yards of total offense (89th and 8th) but only 22 points per game (30th and 5th) as their ‘bend but don't break' emphasis behind a nation leading plus-21 turnover margin has forced a national leading 18 interceptions and 14 recovered fumbles (which ranks fourth).
The Cardinals special teams units have also helped contribute to victory as their punt coverage unit has allowed only 1.10 yards per return (11 yards on 10 returns) which ranks them fourth nationally, which is even better than the Cougars 4.82 yards per return average (25th). Both teams' punters have a lot to do with that punt return coverage as the Cardinals Ryan Johnson averages 42.6 yards per punt but has only 25 on the season (pinning opponents inside their 20-yard line on 8 of them). The Cougars Richie Leone meanwhile, averages 43.2 yards on 42 punts, while placing opponents inside their 20 an amazing 22 of them. The Coogs and Cardinals kickoff coverage units' rank 72nd and 76th respectively allowing 21.8 and 22.1 yards per return. Eli Rogers averages a tad more than 8 yards per punt on 10 total returns for the Cards while Damian Payne averages 4.4 on 14 returns for the Coogs, with both units also ranking in the lower half of the nation. Kickoff returns wise, Charles Gaines is averaging 34 yards on 6 returns including a 93 yarder for a TD, while the Coogs Demarcus Ayers averaging 27.2 on 27 returns and also has returned one 95 yards for a TD. The main difference between the two units may come down to the confidence it has in its place kicker as the Coogs Kyle Bullard has yet to attempt a career field goal, taking over for Leone last week. Meanwhile the Cards John Wallace has hit on 13 of 16 on the season, though none from beyond 40 yards out. The Cardinals are susceptible to blocked kicks as they've allowed opponents to block four of theirs, though they have two of their own while the Cougars have allowed three themselves but have blocked four, with B.J. Singleton blocking two field goal attempts.
The Keys to winning the game for the Coogs are simple; Win first down on both offense and defense. Give O'Korn manageable third downs and the playbook opens up for Meacham while defensively the Cougars must force turnovers, as it's not reasonable to think that they'll keep the Cardinals from marching up and down the field on them. Also the offense must run the ball more for the reasons stated earlier and not turn the ball over. X's and O's aside, the biggest issue facing Houston Saturday night will be their ability to stay in the game early. Louisville takes a 21-3 lead to the locker room for halftime on average, and has allowed only two field goals in the first quarter ALL season long. Houston MUST place the pressure on Louisville as they've been a ‘front running' team all season long as the only time they've trailed is when they fell behind at home to UCF in the final seconds losing 38-35. Even if the Cardinals have success early, the Cougars can't let that intimidate them, which hasn't seemed to be a problem for this young team so far on the season as Levine stated during his presser, "Going to Louisville, again they sell out regardless of who they are playing, so we know it's going to be a great crowd this weekend and another opportunity to get great exposure on national TV. Our kids are thriving off of that. They enjoy playing in front of big crowds; we're getting that on the road the last couple of games so it's something that they're certainly looking forward to."