Saturday against West Virginia, Charlie Strong's offense will have to come up with their best all-around performance if they hope to upset the 24th-ranked Mountaineers in Morgantown. Louisville which has scored the fewest points in the Big East this season, faces a tough task trying to keep pace with West Virginia's high-octane offense, which leads the league in scoring.
Louisville, though, has shown steady improvement offensively the past two weeks, scoring a season-high 27 points last week against Syracuse. The Cardinals could find success against a West Virginia defense that has allowed 30 or more points three times this year and gave up 31 first half points against Rutgers last week.
"What is happening is the young players are growing up and we're beginning to execute," Strong said of UofL's recent improvement on offense. "Our offensive line is doing a better job. The last two weeks we've had over 100 yards rushing. We're giving (Teddy Bridgewater) more time to find open receivers down field."
UofL's improvement on offense starts up front. After dealing with injuries and inexperience, Louisville's offensive line is getting healthy, gaining experience and performing better. The Cardinals rushed for a season-high 187 yards against Rutgers, then followed with 145 yards on the ground against the Orange. Louisville's offensive line has also protected Bridgewater better, allowing no sacks against Rutgers' attacking defense that entered the game first nationally in sacks.
"If you look at us offensively, we are playing better because our offensive line has really come together," Strong said. "We had some guys who were injured. Now, you are getting them all back and they are getting back healthy.
"You look at Jamon Brown. We took him and we moved him (from defensive line) because at the guard position, (John) Miller was down. So, Miller is back healthy. Hector Hernandez is back now. Now we get us a rotation.
"The last two weeks, we've been able to run the football because our offensive line has been able to block better. We've been able to protect the quarterback. You look at two weeks ago in the Rutgers game, we gave up no sacks. We gave up a few sacks the last game with the pressure they were coming with.
"We've been able to run the ball where we've been able to get a 100-yard rusher. We need to run the football. Now, it doesn't make us one dimensional. The offense is getting better. The wide receivers are getting open, the running backs are running better, the offensive line is blocking and the quarterback is doing a better job of managing it."
Though West Virginia ranks as the Big East's best offense, the Mountaineers aren't nearly as formidable on defense after losing seven key starters from last year's unit. West Virginia's defense has allowed 26 points per game this season, 59th nationally.
If Louisville finds success on the ground against the Mountaineers, who allow 133 yards rushing per contest, and play smart, disciplined football with minimal turnovers and penalties, Strong's team might escape Morgantown with a third straight league win.
West Virginia has been especially vulnerable against the run, surrendering 3.8 yards per carry this season. Maryland ran for 188 yards and three scores, and LSU ran for 186 yards and three touchdowns. Two weeks ago, Syracuse ran for 194 yards and two touchdowns, and Rutgers rushed for 151 yards and a pair of touchdowns last week.
"Whether they're going to try and pound us with the run game and play action us … they have that in their game," said West Virginia defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel. "They run a lot of different things out of the Pistol, we're going to see more option than we've probably seen all year and they've hurt people with it, so they're versatile. I'm sure they're taking a look at us and saying let's go and attack them (with the running game."
Louisville will probably probe West Virginia's vulnerability on the ground, but Strong knows the key to victory will be taking care of the football and eliminating false start and holding penalties that have stopped drives this season.
"Offensively, we are going to have to be able to control the crowd," Strong said. "We cannot have any penalties that are going to stall drives."
A lot of the responsibility for managing the offense falls on the shoulders of Bridgewater, a true freshman who will make his sixth start against West Virginia. Though Bridgewater possesses uncanny poise and confidence for a young player, he'll face his most hostile road challenge against the Mountaineers.
In five starts, Bridgewater has thrown for over 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns. Though he lost his first three starts, Bridgewater has led Louisville to consecutive Big East wins for the first time in five seasons. Bridgewater is coming off his most efficient outing, completing 17 of 24 attempts for 198 yards and two touchdowns - without a turnover – against Syracuse.
"Obviously, he's athletic and throws a nice ball, but he's got a great demeanor about him, doesn't panic and always has his eyes down the field," said Casteel. "He has the ability to escape the rush with his eyes down the field. If he wants to run it he can. But he's looking to throw the football when he's scrambling. He's really a good player – a dynamic player. He gets better every week. If would have been better to play him earlier in the year."