"Are we were we need to be? Of course not," said U of L defensive coordinator Vance Bedford on Wednesday. "We have a lot of things to clean up, but we are heading in the right direction right now."
The Cardinals have improved drastically in turnover margin, red zone defense and third down defense. Much of the credit belongs to the veteran defensive line.
"Whenever you can do great things up front, like those guys did, it makes a huge difference," Bedford said. "Brandon Dunn is really playing good football right now. Right now he is keeping guys off our linebackers, so Preston is having a great season because what Brandon and the guys up front are doing. If those guys down front keep playing the way they have been playing, then we could have a pretty good season defensively."
Improved tackling has also limited the number of big runs by opponents.
"We're tackling better. Last year at this time we were giving up a lot of big gains in the running game. If you give up big plays in the run game then you're not going to be as good as you'd like to be, so I think that's been a big part of it. Next thing is, we're a junior and senior ball club. Those guys make adjustments. If something bad happens they don't drop their heads anymore. When you have a veteran football team, they kind of take charge and do things for themselves."
This weekend the 7th-ranked Cardinals will face the second youngest team in the country. Under the direction of first year head coach Ron Turner, Florida International has struggeled to an 0-3 start and are among the nation's worst on both sides of the ball. The Panthers rank 119 in rushing, 116 in passing and 122 in total offense.
"They struggle because they are young on the offensive line," Beford explained. "They have maybe two or three guys that came back with some experience. They have a new offensive coordinator, a new offensive system and they are adjusting to that. They've made strides every single ball game."
The Panthers starting quarterback, Jake Medlock, is recovering from a concussion and is expected to miss the game. Replacing him is a familiar face in sophomore E.J. Hilliard. In a reserve role last fall, Hilliard completed 9 of 10 passes for 82 yards and a touchdown in a 28-21 home loss to the Cardinals.
"Right now I think we are going to play the second team quarterback, who is more athletic, so you might see him running some option, some bootlegs and naked to get him on the perimeter because he can run."
Hilliard's ability to scramble caused problems for the Cardinals defense last season.
"We had a headache," said Bedford. "He ran around like Michael Vick, so we are concerned about his athleticism right now. We're not going to spy on him. We are just going to do what we do. We're going to pressure, play some zone coverage to let him try to find an open guy and try to hit him early if we can."
The Cardinals are currently 42.5 point favorites against the winless Panthers. Kickoff for the soldout contest is scheduled for noon.