Cantwell's play key to UL's Big East hopes

The 2008 season has now reached its halfway point. So what do we know about this Louisville Cardinals team after six games? One thing seems certain - Hunter Cantwell must improve his decision-making if the Cards hope to make Big East noise....

After overcoming a 14-0 deficit Saturday afternoon at PJCS against Middle Tennessee for a 42-23 win, we now know Louisville can take a punch, get back off the mat and deliver a knock-out punch.

"We found a way to get it done," Steve Kragthorpe said after Saturday's 42-23 win over MTSU. "I was proud of the way our team continued to battle through the course of the game after getting down 14-0. We found a way to rally the troops and get it going."

We also have learned that Louisville has some major concerns on offense, particularly at quarterback with Hunter Cantwell. To be fair, Cantwell has played the last two games with a severe ankle injury. Still, the 6-5 senior has struggled with his decision-making and accuracy since a 27-2 season-opening loss to Kentucky.

Despite his NFL-caliber arm strength, Cantwell's propensity for throwing interceptions was decisive in Louisville's two losses this season to UK and UConn. Cantwell threw a combined five interceptions in those two setbacks, including one that UConn's Lawrence Wilson returned for a TD in the game's final minute to give the Huskies a come from behind 26-21 win.

Cantwell's struggles the past two games is troublesome for the Cardinals as they head into the heart of their Big East schedule. The reason Louisville spotted MTSU 14 points? Cantwell threw two first quarter interceptions, one that was returned for a touchdown. If Louisville stands a chance against South Florida – and in the Big East at large – Cantwell has to make better decisions with the football.

"Two interceptions in the first quarter is not a good thing," Cantwell said. "I'm going to try to eliminate those in the future and try to learn from that, cut down on turnovers on my end and just keep playing. The guys never lost faith in me on the sidelines - keeping my spirits good and believing in me. We've got a great team for doing that for me."

Cantwell must play better if the Cards
hope to challenge in the Big East.

We certainly know Louisville can run the football with Victor Anderson, Brock Bolen and Bilal Powell. While Anderson provides big play ability – he had an 88-yard touchdown run against MTSU – Bolen gets the tough yards in the red zone, evidenced by three scores against the Blue Raiders. To keep Big East defenses honest, though, the Cardinals need an effective passing game to compliment a ground attack that ranks in the Top 20 nationally.

We also know that Ron English has made a big impact on the Louisville defense. English's unit has been solid all season, giving the Cardinals an opportunity to win each game. Sure they've given up some big plays here and there, but this group has been well prepared and sound schematically in each contest. They also play an aggressive brand of defense, swarming the football and making big plays.

Here's a pleasant surprise: Louisville's special teams have made dramatic strides the past two games. Remember, this was a unit that looked bad – and that's putting nicely – in the first third of the season. But the special teams led the way against Memphis with a blocked field goal return for touchdown and a Trent Guy kick return for a score. Saturday, Louisville blocked a punt for a touchdown against MTSU. On the season, Louisville has six defensive or special team's touchdowns. While placekicking is still an unproven commodity, Ryan Payne provides hope for the stretch run after connecting on 11 of 11 PAT's the past two games (Payne also made a field goal against MTSU that was negated by a personal foul penalty).

"I think the special teams have improved," Kragthorpe said. "I think our defense did an excellent job again today, especially in the second half once we got in step offensively. Certainly, you want to start out a little bit faster than we did offensively, but I'm proud of our team."

So there it is. Louisville stands 4-2 heading into the second half of the season. And even with an 0-1 record in the Big East the Cardinals still have a chance to make noise in race for the league title. Sure it's a long-shot but UofL does have one major advantage working for them – the schedule. Not only does Louisville get South Florida at home next week, they also get Cincinnati and West Virginia – two of the league's top teams – at PJCS.

"I think it's wide-smoking open," Kragthorpe said of the Big East. "and everybody has a chance at it. Now, you race to the finish line to see who can win the thing."

At the very least, Louisville's bowl hopes appear in good shape. The Cardinals missed out on a bowl last year for the first time in a decade but need just two more wins to become bowl eligible this season. With three home games remaining on the schedule, plus very winnable road games against Syracuse and Rutgers, Steve Kragthorpe and staff should find a way to get the Cardinals back into the bowl game this season.

Before Louisville can start daydreaming about warm-climate bowl games this winter, however, the Cardinals still have plenty of immediate business to handle. That job starts next Saturday when 19th-ranked South Florida comes to town. Louisville certainly owes the Bulls some payback for last year's embarrassing 55-17 blowout loss in Tampa. It won't be easy. USF is well coached, has plenty of talent and – when healthy – might be the best team in the Big East.

"It's all Big East from here on out," said Kragthorpe. "We've got to do a great job of preparing this week because we play a very good South Florida team. We'll look no further than one game at a time."

South Florida will almost surely be favored to win next weekend. But don't forget this key stat – USF has never beaten Louisville at PJCS. You can bet Kragthorpe and the Cardinals are hoping for some cooler weather next weekend for their showdown against South Florida. They're also hoping Hunter Cantwell turns it around and becomes a (positive) decisive factor on offense.

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