Longtime college defensive coordinator Charlie Strong made a splash in his first season as Louisville's head coach in '10, leading the Cardinals to a 7-6 record and a bowl victory while earning Big East Coach of the Year honors. But Louisville only returned 11 starters – four offensive, seven defensive – this fall and was picked seventh in the Big East preseason media poll. The growing pains have been evident. Louisville owns a 2-2 record with wins over Murray State (21-9) and Kentucky (24-17) and losses to Florida International (24-17) and Marshall (17-13).
Strong spent a significant portion of his weekly press conference on Monday criticizing his staff's coaching, his players' playing and his entire team's energy and focus levels against Marshall. The former Florida and South Carolina defensive coordinator told reporters that he didn't anticipate making any lineup changes because "no position played well."
The Cardinals rank 86th nationally in total offense (359.75 ypg) and 105th in scoring offense (18.75 ppg), but have been competitive due to a strong defense that ranks 20th in scoring (16.75) and 23rd overall (306.75).
"It's so hard for me to stomach that loss. I've been involved in a lot of games and it's so hard to stomach because we just didn't prepare our football team. We did a poor job of coaching and our players did a poor job of playing. For us not to go out there and play with energy and emotion and play fast and play as a team and play for one another is unacceptable and it can never happen again. We had the crowd ... we called out our crowd and our crowd was there. Our fans were unbelievable. It was just a poor, poor performance for us as a coaching staff and as players." – Strong on the Marshall loss
"Guys just respond differently. We're still trying to feel our way around what identity that this team has. I think we'll get there." – Louisville junior center Mario Benavides following the loss to Marshall
Matchups to Watch
UNC's Bryn Renner vs. UL's Blitzing Defense
The Tar Heels have encountered two defenses that rely heavily on blitzing this season in Rutgers and Georgia Tech. UNC was fortunate to escape the former with a victory while coming up short to the latter two weeks ago.
Renner (87-of-115 passing, 1,127 yards, 11 TD, 6 INT) threw three critical interceptions under pressure against the Scarlet Knights, failing to account for a safety over the top on the first, firing into double coverage on the second and overthrowing his intended target on the third. Against Georgia Tech, Renner combined a couple of picks with four sacks late in the game primarily due to his inability to get rid of the ball in a timely fashion.
Renner will once again face an attacking style of defense on Saturday.
When asked to explain why Louisville was able to lead the country in tackles for loss (9.0 per game) and rank 21st in sacks (2.75), Withers replied, "Blitz a lot."
Defensive ends Greg Scruggs (3.0) and William Savoy (2.5) lead the Cardinals in sacks, while linebacker Dexter Heyman tops the stat book with 34 tackles and 6.0 tackles for loss.
"Knowing Coach Strong's background, they'll be an aggressive defense," Withers said. "You'll see some four-man fronts from them on defense. On third down, we'll see another menagerie of looks, blitzes from everywhere. A lot of man coverage."
But Strong (pictured right) wasn't satisfied with his defense's performance in last week's loss to Marshall. Louisville gave up 353 total yards and failed to force any turnovers against the Thundering Herd.
"We committed way too many missed assignments," Strong said. "On defense alone, we had 24 missed assignments and that just shows you right there where the focus of this football team was."
North Carolina's offensive line has been solid in pass protection, despite the seven-sack effort by the Yellow Jackets two weeks ago. UNC's front line has only allowed one sack in the other four games, which should help Renner's confidence under center while knowing that heavy pressure is coming.
UL's Ground Game vs. UNC's Run Defense
Credit Strong with his willingness to be candid in discussing his team's abilities, or lack thereof. He was asked on Monday about his offense's national statistics – 86th in total offense, 105th in scoring offense, 91st in rushing offense (120.75 ypg), 116th in sacks (4.0) and 109th in turnover margin (minus-1.0) – and minced no words in his response.
"We're just not very good right now," Strong said. "We're not doing a very good job on offense. The stats – they don't lie. They tell you everything. You look at it and we're not doing a good job of moving the football, we're not doing a good job of running the ball. We've given up a lot of sacks and those stats are glaring."
Much of Strong's anger begins with his team's ineffectiveness in running the ball. A running-back-by-committee approach in the back field – headlined by Vic Anderson's 155 yards and a touchdown on 36 carries – has failed to gain traction and therefore has allowed opponents to pin their ears back in going after quarterbacks Will Stein (49-of-79 passing, 615 yards, 5 TD, INT) and Teddy Bridgewater (32-of-50 passing, 341 yards, 3 TD, 3 INT).
Marshall ranks 110th nationally in rushing offense (94.0), but still managed to outgain Louisville on the ground, 117-60.
"We did not win the line of scrimmage," Strong said. "We talk about running the football — they outrushed us on Saturday. They out-toughed us up front."
After allowing Virginia and Georgia Tech to combine for 482 rushing yards in consecutive weeks, North Carolina's run defense got back on track against pass-happy ECU in holding the Pirates to 73 rushing yards on 21 carries, good for a 3.5-yards-per-carry average.
But the Tar Heels still have plenty to prove defensively after giving up nearly 1,500 yards in their last three ball games.