Establish Ground GameLouisville, behind a veteran offensive line and strong running by Bilal Powell, was one of the top running teams in the Big East last season. Now, with five new starters up front, the Cardinals running game is off to a slow start this season, averaging just 3.1 yards per carry, including a paltry 2.2 yards per rush in the loss to FIU. If the Cardinals hope to snap Kentucky's four-game winning streak Saturday, they'll have to establish a consistent ground attack to keep the offense balanced and ‘ahead' of the chains.
"I think the first thing we've got to be able to do is run the football," said Mike Sanford.
Jump starting a rushing attack that ranks 90th nationally won't be easy against a Kentucky defense that has been solid against the run in its first two games. Kentucky's strength on defense resides in massive tackles Donte Rumph and Mister Cobble and a veteran linebacker corps led by Danny Trevathan, the SEC's leading tackler.
Another reason Louisville needs to find success on the ground? Kentucky's defense has intercepted six passes this season, ranking second in the SEC in pass defense efficiency. The Cards offense must make Kentucky's defense account for both run and pass in Commonwealth Stadium.
Start FastLouisville fell behind FIU 21-3 last week, which proved too big a deficit for the Cardinals to overcome. In two seasons at UofL, Strong's teams haven't played well from behind and are only 1-5 under their second-year coach when trailing at halftime. Conversely, the Cardinals are 6-2 when leading at the break under Strong.
That's why it's key for Louisville to get off to a fast start against Wildcats, especially given the offenses struggles to score points this season. If the Cardinals can build an early lead, it would serve two key purposes – taking the crowd out of the contest, while providing a confidence boost for Strong's young players.
"It's a big deal to get off to a fast start," Dexter Heyman said. "Football is played with momentum. You want momentum early and often. The faster we can feed off that momentum better off we'll be."
"We can't turn the ball over," Sanford said.
The Cardinals committed four turnovers against Murray State, including Jeremy Wright's fumble in scoring position. In the loss to FIU, Will Stein's interception that was returned for a touchdown put Louisville in an early hole that it never dug out. If Charlie Strong's young team hopes to spring an upset on the road against an SEC opponent, they can't commit costly turnovers. That's easier said than done for a young team hitting the road for the first time this season.
Strike DeepLouisville has struggled to sustain drives and score in the red zone. To take pressure off the running game, Sanford's offense could use a few quick strikes in the passing game to soften up a Kentucky defense that has allowed only 16 points this season. Will Stein threw for 350 yards and two touchdowns against FIU and has several young, but talented, wide receivers who have proven capable of making big plays in the passing game this season.
"We've got to make big plays in the passing game," Sanford said.
If the Cardinals hope to strike deep, Louisville's offensive line will have to do a better job pass protecting than they did last week when FIU sacked Stein six times. If Stein has time, freshmen receivers DeVante Parker, Michaelee Harris and Eli Rogers and senior tight end Josh Chichester have proven reliable playmakers this season. Parker has caught touchdown passes in both games, while Harris scored last week against FIU. Chichester is coming off his best career-game, going over 100 yards receiving for the first time against FIU.
Senior Josh Bellamy, who has battled a hamstring injury, and junior Andrell Smith have been quiet to start the season, combining for just six receptions in the first two games. Louisville's most veteran wide receivers need to make an impact and deliver some big plays on the road this weekend.
Recognize BlitzKentucky's first-year defensive coordinator, Rick Minter, has implemented an attacking 3-4 defensive scheme that is designed to give the Wildcats greater flexibility in defensive play calling, while generating more turnovers and negative yardage plays.
Though Kentucky has recorded only two sacks this season, Minter's more aggressive system has forced six turnovers – all interceptions, including four against Western Kentucky. Charlie Strong and Mike Sanford expect Minter to bring pressure from multiple positions and it will be key for the Cardinals young linemen to recognize and pick up Kentucky's blitz packages.
"We've got to be able to block all of their movement and blitzes," Sanford said.
Contain UK PlaymakersThough Kentucky lost playmakers Randall Cobb, Derrick Lock and Chris Matthews, Joker Phillips still has some dangerous weapons in his arsenal.
Freshman running back Josh Clemons rushed for 126 yards against Central Michigan, including an 87-yard touchdown run. Wide receiver LaRod King caught five passes for 100 yards against CMU and is averaging 20.2 yards per catch this season. He recorded a 34-touchdown catch against CMU and a 31-yard scoring grab against Western Kentucky. And while Morgan Newton has struggled throwing the football – he has four interceptions and UK averages only 105 passing yards per game – Kentucky's quarterback rushed for a career-high 43 yards vs. CMU and posted a 58-yard run vs. WKU.
"The defensive keys are their playmakers. They have two great running backs and a receiver in LaRod King who makes a lot of big plays," said Heyman. "Morgan Newton is very good throwing the deep ball, especially to Matt Roark, who is rangy receiver. Our corners are going to be tested this week."
Win Up FrontCharlie Strong says the game will be won in the trenches, which means Louisville's defensive line has to win at the point of attack and stuff Kentucky's running game. Kentucky's offensive line was expected to be the team's strength this season, but projected starters Billy Joe Murphy and Matt Smith haven't played yet.
On the other hand, Louisville's defensive line appears to be getting healthy at the right time. Sophomore tackle Brandon Dunn and reserve tackle Roy Philon returned to the lineup last week, and the Cardinals are expected to get defensive end B.J. Butler back on the field this week.
"We have to win those up front, one-on-one battles," said Heyman. "Their left guard was all-SEC last year so it's going to be a great challenge."
Even with three starters banged up to start the season, Louisville has been solid against the run, allowing just 94 yards rushing per game and 2.5 yards per carry. Louisville's defensive front has a big test this week, as the Wildcats are averaging 161 yards rushing per game, including a solid 4.6 yards per rush. UK, though, will be without second-leading rusher Raymond Sanders, and Murphy and Smith remain questionable.