Powell leads Louisville's resurgence

Bilal Powell will lead a resurgent Louisville offense against a tough Pittsburgh defense Saturday at Heinz Field in a game that will provide a true measuring stick for Charlie Strong's program.

Bilal Powell will lead a resurgent Louisville offense against a tough Pittsburgh defense Saturday at Heinz Field in a game that will provide a true measuring stick for Charlie Strong's program.

Powell, who leads the Big East in rushing, has been the major reason for Louisville's renewed offensive success a year after the Cardinals ranked at the bottom of the Big East's offensive standings.

Through seven games, Powell has rushed for 1,003 yards and nine touchdowns, while going over the 200 yard mark against both Memphis and Cincinnati. Powell, who ranks fourth in the country in rushing yards per game, is on pace to set a new school rushing record and shattering the old mark of 1,429 yards set by Howard Stevens in 1971.

Like the rest of Louisville's offense, Powell has found success in first-year offensive coordinator Mike Sanford's spread attack. Though Powell has rushed for more than 100 yards in each of Louisville's past four games, topping the century mark against a Pittsburgh defense that ranks ninth in the nation against the run won't be easy.

"If you watch Bilal Powell, he is a young man who works and never says anything," Strong said. "He just goes about his business. In spring ball, I first noticed when he was running through our defense. I did not know how good our defense was or how good we were. He carried it over from spring ball into the season and has been playing unbelievable.

"He is so fun to watch each snap when he gets the ball; people hold their breath because he can go break one. Even our players feel like that and he is playing so well. It is so fun to watch him go play and you always like to see good things happen to good people."

Louisville's improved offense faces a tough test against Pitt's defense.
Though Powell has made several tremendous individual efforts this season, including his magical 85-yard touchdown run against Cincinnati, Strong credits Louisville's offensive line for Powell's success this season.

"It (Powell's success) says a lot about our offensive line because they are blocking really well," Strong said. "I have always said they are the glue of our football team. The line is protecting (Adam) Froman and has opened up holes for Powell to go run the way he does.

"Then, the receivers are blocking down the field. When Bilal breaks a run, a wide receiver usually comes across in front of him to block a defensive back. In the Cincinnati game, the tight end, Nate Nord, runs across the field to allow Powell to break it. Offensively, they have enough confidence in themselves to know Froman can make the throw, Powell can make the run, the receivers can make the catches and the offensive line can block well enough where we feel we can go score points."

But it's not just the return of the running game, which averages 211 yards per game, that has been impressive under Sanford's tutelage. More importantly, Sanford has restored balance to Louisville's offense, something that was lacking the past three seasons. While Powell has found success on the ground running behind a veteran offensive front, senior quarterback Adam Froman has been a model of efficiency running Sanford's attack.

After throwing for 1,354 yards and six touchdowns last season, Froman has already passed for 1,551 yards and 11 touchdowns in UofL's first seven games this season. Froman has completed 60 percent of his throws and ranks 35th nationally in pass efficiency.

"The guy who does not get enough credit though is (Adam) Froman," said Strong. "Froman is playing unbelievable."

What has made Louisville's offense so difficult to defend this season – UL ranks first in the Big East in rushing, second in passing and total offense and third in scoring – is that Sanford prefers to spread the wealth. While Powell does most of the work on the ground, Froman has completed at least 10 passes to seven receivers. Doug Beaumont leads the team with 28 catches, while tight end Cameron Graham is second with 24.

Still, Louisville's offensive success begins with a tough, veteran offensive front.

"That is just our mentality. That is what we want to be known as, a tough offensive line that gets after it," offensive lineman Josh Byrom said. "We set a goal every week of what we want to rush for. It gives us the motivation and hearing Bilal saying, ‘We are going to get that,' is big. We are such a tight group and we like that physical mentality of ‘we are going in there and running the football.'"

If Louisville hopes to upset Pittsburgh, which stands alone at the top of the Big East standings with a 2-0 record, on the road this week, the Cardinals offensive line will have to play well against the talented Panther defense.

"In order to win games, you have to run the football," Byrom said. "When you run the football, it opens up the passing game. Inside, everybody knows in order for us to win the game, we have to run the football. It is our mentality and it will continue to be our mentality throughout the season."

Pittsburgh has been stingy against the run this season, allowing opponents just 92 yards rushing per game. The Panthers have allowed only two teams to rush for more than 100 yards this season – Miami and Utah – and lost both of those contests. Establishing the running game with Powell appears vital to the Cardinals upset hopes Saturday.

"We take a ton of pride. We have a very close group of offensive linemen and having a back like Bilal, who does the things he does while being so humble, helps," Byrom said. "When he had that last rush that got him over 1,000 yards, the first thing he did was came over and gave me a big hug and said, ‘That is because of you guys.' It feels great as an offensive line to know you can do something like that, but it helps to have a running back like Bilal. He is such a humble guy and goes to work every day. He deserves everything he gets. We are excited and happy to be that offensive line to provide that record for him. I hope he keeps on going and gets better."

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