I have to start with the defense, because like Greg Scruggs said after the game, "If they can't score, they can't win." It's so true and watching this defense play on Saturday was extremely encouraging. The great thing about the Cardinal defense is that so many bodies are utilized. I am so excited about the number of players involved for a number of reasons. First, it means that depth is not an issue. Second, it means that the coaches are really doing a great job. There are a lot of coaches that can ride a handful of players and surround those guys with average talent but still find success. Here we have some talented guys, but the front seven is in constant rotation keeping fresh bodies out there so you can't point to one player as the sole reason for their play thus far.
I am curious as to why there is not a lot of rotation in the secondary like there is at linebacker and defensive line. It isn't a complaint, because the system is working, but I would like to know if the reason for the lack of rotation is a matter of philosophy or a lack of trust in the personnel behind the first unit. For the most part the only rotation in the secondary has been bringing the nickel in or out depending on formation. Maybe Larry Slade really trusts our secondary conditioning.
On the day UofL only allowed 223 total yards, and only 39 yards rushing! When a football team cannot run the football (and they are trying to) they don't have a chance to win. Memphis had the most success through the air, and had a good receiving corps, but their QB was hurried the entire game and was sacked 5 times.
How about Darius Ashley? Not only did Ashley fill the void for injured Mike Evans, but he led all UofL tacklers and recorded two sacks on the day! To make the switch to DB and thriving in this way is really impressive for Ashley and even more evidence of how good our staff is by having the foresight to make this switch. I admit I scratched my head.
One interesting note was the extensive use of Antoine Canady at MLB after Dexter Heyman basically dominated the clock the previous week. Maybe this is a result where Canady is playing well in practice and the coaches wanted to reward him. I don't know the exact number of minutes played but I would bet that Canady saw more time than Heyman even though Dexter started. I believe we've started three different MLBs this season.
Johnny Patrick came out of nowhere for his INT playing zone coverage he quickly made up ground and caught up to the underthrown ball. My only criticism of Patrick on the day was that his open field tackling seemed to not be as sharp as usual from him. He missed a couple of tackles he usually makes. Memphis generally avoided Bobby Burns' side of the field which was surprising.
It was interesting seeing Troy Pascley out there at safety. I wonder if he requested this change or if it was a coaches' decision. Greg Scruggs covered the screen like an experienced DT on Saturday. Scruggs is just steady, fundamental. You have to like him. I also liked Titus Teague out there in mop-up duty.
Some criticism of Hakeem Smith; he had a wide-open middle of the field opportunity to make SportCenter's hit of the century list and completely whiffed. Not only was that a chance to send a message to not try the middle of the field, but Smith didn't even make the tackle. He needs to bring that guy to the ground at the very least. Also, Daniel Brown gave up a first down after he wrapped up and failed to bring down the Memphis running back at the line of scrimmage and instead gave up the biggest gain of the day for Memphis on the ground.
Overall, I really liked the intensity and pursuit of the Cardinal defense. Even once the game was well in hand they kept the pressure coming and took the shutout personally. The second unit played well when given the chance to play and the intensity carried over. The UofL defense is a great example of what a TEAM should be like. It isn't about individuals, it is only about getting the job done. They have togetherness, they care about each other, and they trust each other.
If you had told me after the Eastern Kentucky game that the offense would have two consecutive games with more than 550 yards of offense I would have told you that you were crazy. I am honestly shocked at how good the offense has looked since the Oregon State game. It is almost like the proverbial "Light" has come on and I think everyone is curious to see if the Cardinals can keep the momentum going into conference play.
Against Memphis, the explosion started with the offensive line. The Memphis front seven was completely outclassed by the UofL offensive line. The Tigers attempted to answer by bringing their secondary close to the LOS, but that fatal mistake allowed Froman to torch them for 235 yards and 4 TDs on only 16 attempts. Still while attempting to stop the run by bringing the secondary up close (usually no less than all players being within 7 yards of the LOS) the Cardinals were even more effective on the ground gaining 299 yards. The UofL offense actually scored on 5 straight possessions and was at the Cardinal's mercy that UofL didn't gain 700+ yards rather than the 574 they had on the day. The Cardinals could have put up whatever number they wanted on Saturday, but settled for a 56-0 victory.
If all that wasn't enough, the best news of the day was this was the first game of the Charlie Strong era without a turnover from the offense! Josh Bellamy is really starting to come on and make an impact. I never feel like anyone else has a chance at the jump balls that Froman puts up but Bellamy, no one has come close to outjumping him yet. He is also very proficient at shaking the defender off and getting space for the throw. It is obvious how much Froman trusts him.
Bilal is also killing teams who are not playing fundamental defense by cutting to the backside of an overpursuit. I think Powell has gained about 175 additional yards on the season by taking advantage of the defense's mistakes. Memphis broke contain several times on the day and Powell is the wrong back to do that against. The play of the day was Powell's 74-yard run, he made about 4 or 5 different cuts and just outran the defense. Great down field blocking by the whole team, but especially Andrell Smith and Cameron Graham. Criticism for Powell is that he has shown some fumblitis this season, and almost coughed one up inside the redzone.
I think I write this every week but how good is Cameron Graham? He is a 3rd down converting machine. He runs great routes, has good hands and showed some nice athleticism on the first TD of the game. A lot of folks don't really pay attention to him, as they are focused on Beaumont, Bellamy, Froman, Anderson, and Powell. But Graham might be the best overall football player UofL has outside of Bilal Powell.
How could I write so much about the offense already without mentioning Dominique Brown? He probably had more playing time than any other Cardinal on the day, and played well. He is going to continue to be effective out of the WildCard and he showed on Saturday how good of a receiver he can be as well. He is a weapon and I look forward to seeing him more and more as the season wears on.
Our offensive line as I mentioned before is really playing well. The Cardinals got Mario back at center and looked good in his return. The left side of the line (Stingily & Wetterer) was just blowing people off the ball on Saturday. The right side is playing well too, but the left side is especially dominant. Huge holes over there, defensive lineman and linebackers were getting pancaked throughout the day.
Every Card fan knew it was a matter of time before UofL was going to pass out of the WildCard. They had set this play up perfectly, and executed it well too. Powell carried out the fake and Chichester stalled at the line until the defender committed and once the defender bit it was all over. Throwing this wrinkle in is only going to make preparing for UofL that much more difficult and that much more dangerous. I can't wait to see what Sanford dials up next week.
I do have a few gripes about the offense however, it might be picky but on the 1st possession the Cardinals had a 3rd & 2 and opted to pass. It was apparent that the running game was going to be unstoppable early on, and I don't mind passing here but the play call was questionable. Either Froman ran to the wrong side on the play, or something went tragically wrong with the play call. Froman rolled out to his right with all of his receivers on the left. Almost like it was a naked bootleg, but Froman came out of the snap looking to throw and was not on a dead run. This could have been a big play call where the defense cheats to the rolling side and Froman plants his feet and fires across the field to a wide open receiver, but there was no checkdown to make certain of the 1st down and the opening drive was stalled.
Nate Nord cost Powell another long TD run on UofL's 4th possession on the opening play, Nord for some reason didn't feel like making his block and the defender ended up making the stop on Powell. UofL scored on the possession but if Nord had made that play it would have been a footrace to the endzone and I haven't seen anyone catch Powell yet in 2010.
Late in the game, the officials actually preserved the UofL shutout by keeping their flag in their pocket when Justin Burke was not called for intentional grounding in the endzone. Burke was not out of the pocket, and did not have a receiver anywhere in the same zip code, but alas, the flag stayed in the pocket.
Also, congrats to Andrell Smith for his first career TD. I like Andrell a lot, he is steady and blocks for his teammates. I do think he needs to work on his sideline awareness as he had a long reception taken away as he nonchalantly caught the ball out of bounds and I think he could have made the play.
One complaint about O-line is we still are seeing false starts. Typically these are drive killers. How bad is Victor Anderson's shoulder injury? Is it the same shoulder as last season?
It's been brought to my attention that I don't give enough credit to Josh Bleser. Punters typically draw attention to themselves with shanks, drops, blocks, shallow kicks, line drives, kicking to Devin Hester, etc. So the fact that I really haven't mentioned him yet tells you that he's doing an amazing job. He hangs the ball up high allowing his coverage to get downfield (Weedman was great on Saturday at doing this), and really has a lot of control. I've been really impressed with him thus far, particularly with his placement in getting the ball inside the 15. UofL is lucky to have him.
Outside of the Oregon St. game UofL's special teams has played pretty well and has shown improvements each week. I still would like to see more improvement in kickoff coverage, and the staff has made some personnel changes on the unit. I think there are still some vulnerabilities on kickoff, but Chris Philpott is getting them deep into the endzone for the most part and has had few line drives.
Also, great pressure on punt block in this game. Did Senorise Perry get credit for a block on the tipped punt he had? I couldn't find it anywhere, and maybe he didn't get it, but it sure looked like he did! Great game for the true freshman.
The Cardinals now look ahead to seven straight conference games and they start out with back-to-back conference champions Cincinnati. Friday night's tilt will be completely different from the Memphis game, as things will not come as easily. Still by all accounts the players have had the Cincinnati game circled since after the Oregon State loss. The players noticeably want to get a statement victory and make an impact on the Big East. It should be noted that UofL's three wins were not great football teams, in fact, Memphis is an extremely bad football team. Still, UofL won the games they were supposed to and through five games the fans have witnessed five steps forward. Now we'll see if that growth continues at a rapid rate or if the Cardinals will start to experience some growing pains now that conference play has arrived.
Coach Strong is right, this is a totally different team from Game One to Game Five. It is a shining example of how good our coaching staff is, and is also a reflection and maturation of the talent we actually have in the program. I think right now we probably have 4-6 seniors with a legitimate chance to make an NFL roster/practice squad next summer (Powell, Patrick, Stingly, Wetterer, Tatum, Graham), and it is amazing watching the players really start to believe in themselves and have confidence in what they are doing.
The last two games have been about the big play. I think both Cincinnati and Louisville will be working hard on preventing the big play, giving up short fields, and will likely be trying to control the ball as much as possible on Friday night. Let's get that Keg of Nails back where it belongs!
One thing about the rest of the home games, Coach Strong has only asked the fans to do one thing and one thing only: Be in your seats BEFORE kickoff. I know that tailgating is a lot of fun, and people have things to do, and it's your ticket and you can attend the games how you want to. But like it or not, the fans are a part of the program. And also like it or not, the fans are the only thing that will never leave this program. Coaches will leave/retire, athletic directors will too, stadiums get built and torn down, players leave every year. Like it or not the fans make the program what it is, and while they do pay the bills, their interaction with their program also determines the level of product on the field.
My guess is that Charlie Strong sees fans in their seats prior to kickoff as the fans helping him sell our program to potential recruits. And since he gets up everyday at 4:00 a.m. working for our program and puts our players through the ringer year round doing mat drills, off season workouts, hitting the weight room, it isn't really asking the fans much to show up on time 6-7 times in a calendar year. We all have lives, and there will sometimes be things that are unavoidable, but the fans and the atmosphere they create is the only enduring thing this program will ever have. You can look at your fandom as a casual thing, or you could look at it like it is something that is important to you. Either way I would think that only one side would care about the results. So it's up to you, do you want to win?