The good news for the Cardinals? The Panthers have struggled on defense the past few weeks.
Louisville's problems on offense have been numerous so far this season. Turnovers plagued the Cardinals in losses to Kentucky and Utah – Louisville committed five costly turnovers in those two games. Last week, Louisville's running game bogged down against the Utes, as the Cardinals gained just 21 yards in the second half and averaged a pitiful 2.3 yards per carry. The Cardinals also haven't been particularly effective on third down, converting just 5 of 22 opportunities against Indiana State and Utah, or in the red zone, scoring just seven touchdowns in 17 opportunities (Pitt ranks ninth nationally in red zone defense, allowing scores only 64 percent of the time).
Fortunately, Pittsburgh's defense hasn't stopped much the past few weeks. The Panthers have allowed 500 or more yards in two of their last three games, surrendering 500 yards to Buffalo three weeks ago and 530 yards in a loss at NC State last weekend. The Panthers pass defense has been especially vulnerable. Pitt gave up 433 yards through the air against Buffalo and 322 against the Wolfpack.
"All of Wilson's runs...were on his own. They were not designed runs," said Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt. "He tucked the ball and outran us. Obviously, we didn't do a good job of coaching and didn't do enough executing to contain him. He was sacked 11 times coming into our ballgame and he was not scrambling. He was throwing the ball. In our game, he made up his mind that he was going to run the ball. To me, that was the difference."
If Louisville hopes to take advantage of a suspect Pittsburgh defense they'll have to do two things: Take care of the football and give quarterback Justin Burke time to find receivers, who should be able to get open against a shaky Panthers secondary.
Neither will be easy. Louisville's been prone to turnovers so far this season and didn't exactly stand up to Utah's defensive pressure last week, giving up four sacks. That's concerning considering the Panthers rank fourth nationally in sacks at four per contest.
"We've got to do a much better job of taking care of the football," Steve Kragthorpe said. "We play good football when we take care of it. The three first half turnovers (against Utah) put us in a hole."
That's been another big problem for the Cardinals under Kragthorpe – getting into first half deficits. Louisville has started slowly in all three of its games this season. The Cards trailed lowly Indiana State 7-3 after one quarter and were behind 17-7 to Kentucky at halftime and 20-0 against Utah at intermission.
"We've got to score more points, that's the bottom line," said Kragthorpe. "We've got to put more points on the board than we are right now. We've got to be a little more productive in the running game. I probably abandoned the running game too early after we got down 20-0 (to Utah)."
Offensive lineman Greg Tomczyk said the Cardinals are killing themselves with turnovers and mistakes. Louisville ranked 110th in the nation in turnovers last season and already have turned the ball over seven times this season through three games. Those turnovers have resulted in 24 points for the opposition, including ten against Utah.
Now, Louisville looks to put their non-conference struggles behind them and focus on the Big East race. The Cardinals are 0-2 in Big East openers under Kragthorpe and have lost their last five league games. Louisville is 4-10 in the Big East with Kragthorpe roaming the sidelines.
"I think every game from here on is a must win," Tomczyk said. "We've made our mistakes and we can't afford anymore. Every game is a must win and we all know that."
Defensively, Louisville has played better than expected so far this season. The Cardinals rank 24th nationally in total defense despite allowing a season-high 421 yards against Utah. Louisville is yielding only 287.7 yards per contest and haven't allowed any third quarter points on the season. Louisville also has intercepted five passes in its first three games after picking off eight passes last season.
Still, there are some concerns. Louisville ranks 88th nationally in third down defense, allowing opponents to convert nearly 43 percent. The Cardinals defense also hasn't been particularly effective stopping the run – they gave up 129 yards to Utah's third string running back – or pressuring opposing quarterbacks – the Cardinals are last in the Big East in sacks.
UofL's defense might have its toughest test of the season against Pittsburgh. The Panthers are averaging a robust 37.5 points per game and have turned the ball over just two times this season, third nationally for the fewest turnovers.
The Panthers are led by solid junior quarterback Bill Stull, who has thrown eight touchdown passes with only one interception this season, freshman running back Dion Lewis, who is tied for first in the Big East in scoring with eight touchdowns and 6'5 sophomore wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin, who averages 21 yards per reception and had a 79 yard touchdown catch against NC State.
"I think [Stull] is an effective thrower and throws well on the run," Kragthorpe said. "It looks like he manages the game real well for them right now. They're going to line up and try to ram it down (our) throat with the power play and use some play-action passes off of it. They're good up front and they've got a good offensive line group. They're very physical at the tight end spot and they're good blockers."
Though their last Big East win came against South Florida last October, Kragthorpe believes his team can compete for the league title this season. Kragthorpe is 1-1 against Pitt at Louisville, including a 41-7 loss last season on the road.
"It's going to be a tight race and we feel we have as good a chance as anybody of making a claim for the trophy," he said.
Tomczyk also sounded confident Louisville can make some noise in the conference this season.
"We do feel that we have a team that can compete in the Big East," he said. "If we cut down on mistakes and turnovers and we can win (those) games. We're very pumped up for league play. Looking at the other teams in the league we have as good a shot as anybody else."
The game is a sellout and the Louisville crowd has been asked to participate in a Black Out of PJCS. The contest will be televised on ESPN2.
"We've traditionally played well on weekdays," said Tomczyk. "Black Out adds something to the game. It makes you a little more excited. And of course you want to put your best foot forward on national television, especially the first league game. It's something special to us and we really look forward to playing in it."
Date October 2, 2009
Kickoff 8:00 p.m.
Location Papa John's Cardinal Stadium
Radio 84-WHAS AM
Series Louisville leads 7-5; Pittsburgh won last meeting 41-7
Notebook The Cardinals are 0-2 in Big East openers under Steve Kragthorpe and just 4-10 in league play the past two seasons...Louisville is 3-1 against Pittsburgh since joining the Big East, but lost last season 41-7 on the road...Pittsburgh hasn't beaten Louisville at home since 1983...The Cards have dropped their last five Big East games and are looking for their first win in the conference since defeating USF last season...Louisville has been outscored 44-24 in the first half this season, including 31-10 in the first quarter. The Cardinals trailed Utah 20-0 at halftime...Louisville has committed seven turnovers this season that has cost the Cardinals 24 points and has missed three field goal attempts, including a blocked attempt against Utah...UofL ranks 88th in the nation in third down defense, but held Utah to 4 of 13 on third down...Linebacker Jon Dempsey leads the Big East in tackles and is tenth in the nation. He's recorded double-digit tackles in the Cardinals last five games...Trent Guy leads the Big East in kick return average (33.8 yards per return) and ranks 11th nationally...Louisville will host Southern Miss next Saturday with kickoff set for 7:30