Vance Bedford heard the whispers.
The University of Louisville defensive coordinator said he knew – and his players also noted they heard – fans and pundits questioning the toughness and strength of the Cardinals' defense this season.
After ranking No. 23 and No. 14 in total defense in the first two seasons of the Charlie Strong-era, Bedford said the expectations were high coming into the season. The Cardinals gave up over 400 yards early in the season to North Carolina and then allowed 17 points in a game at Southern Mississippi.
"We heard people questioning us," safety Hakeem Smith said.
"If you listened to some of those people, you would have thought we were 120th in the nation because we weren't stopping anybody all season," Bedford said with a smile.
Bedford said he has an answer to all those who doubted the Cardinals and wondered, ‘What was wrong with the defense?' "Nothing."
The Cardinals head into the Jan. 2 Sugar Bowl against Florida as the No. 25 ranked defense in the country, allowing 344.2 yards a game. The Cardinals allowed just 289.5 total yards a game in the final two regular-season games, including only 188 yards through the air by Connecticut and Rutgers.
"The expectations for us, coach (Charlie) Strong has, every place he's been has played great defense," Bedford said. "And when we came here to Louisville, one thing we wanted to bring a certain attitude, attitude about being aggressive, attacking style, defense. Those are the things we've done.
"The difference in the two seasons is this: Our offense this year played outstanding. Did some tremendous things. Our first two years we had our struggles. This year we played more as a team. We played more as a team.
"And we won 10 ball games. First two years we won seven ball games. People said you played great defense. I would rather win 10 ball games than people say you aren't playing well. Now you sit back and say, wait a minute, you're 25th in the nation in defense. We're doing just a little bit right to go from seven wins to ten wins. I get excited about that. That's why we're sitting here today in New Orleans and having a little gumbo and a little crawfish etouffee . So I'm excited."
Defensive line coach Clint Hurtt echoed those sentiments, noting the Cardinals "had times when we didn't play as well," on defense as a unit. The Cardinals gave up over 400 yards in the loss to Syracuse after starting 9-0.
"We played pretty decent in about half the games," Hurtt said. "We made some plays and we made some mistakes. But we won 10 games. The first two years, we didn't really play good defense and we didn't get that far."
The Cardinals ranked 52nd in the country in stopping the run, allowing 151.1 yards a game and will get a major test against the Gators and star running back Mike Gillislee, who averages 92 yards a game on the ground.
It's on the ground where U of L has struggled some this season, allowing 194.7 yards a game on the ground over the last five games. U of L allowed a whopping 278 yards – the most of the Strong-era – to Syracuse in the loss.
"Sure, there were a lot of things we could have done better," Bedford said. "I would say we are a C-plus to B-minus this season. We know we could have done some stuff better but we still did some good things.
"We had to do a lot of things right to win 10 games."
Bedford noted those five games the Cardinals were banged up on the defensive front and now have everybody healthy. He also pointed out the Cardinals are still young and next season the expectations will be the same.
"It was frustrating because we knew people could make the plays," linebacker Preston Brown said. "We just need to focus and make the tackle like we're taught and we'll be fine. We have to play smart."
And Bedford said playing smart and being prepared for "anything" against the Gators would be the key for the defense.
"There's no telling what we might see," Bedford said. "They might open it up, we might see some empty backfields and they might throw it all over, just to see if we can make some plays and tackle. We might see it all."