Countdown to Kickoff: Louisville

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina steps out of conference play for the final time of the season on Saturday to welcome Big East foe Louisville to Kenan Stadium (noon, ESPN2).

The Tar Heels (4-1) enter the sixth meeting between these two programs as a 13.5-point favorite. Louisville (2-2) leads the series, 3-2, and handed UNC a 69-14 demolition back in 2005, which stands as a school record for points by an opponent.

North Carolina won its first road game of the season last Saturday at East Carolina in building a 28-3 halftime lead and coasting to a 35-20 victory. The Cardinals, on the other hand, have lost their last two home games and are hoping to continue their recent success away from Papa John's Stadium under second-year head coach Charlie Strong.

Strong blasted his team during his weekly press conference on Monday after a lackluster 17-13 loss to Marshall at home last weekend.

"Nothing needs to be said when you have a poor performance on Saturday," Strong said. "You don't have room to talk. It's about getting better and just keeping your mouth shut and going about your business."

Louisville is 9-8 since the former Florida and South Carolina defensive coordinator took over, but just 4-6 at home and 5-2 on the road. The Cardinals won their lone road game of 2011 at Kentucky, 24-17, on Sept. 17.

"We'll see if we can bounce back from losing here to going on the road now," Strong said of Saturday's trip to Chapel Hill. "It's really going to show the character of this football team, just exactly what we're made of."

While Louisville's blitz-happy defense ranks first nationally in tackles for loss (9.0), 20th in scoring (16.75) and 23rd overall (306.75), the offense has struggled to find its identity. The Cardinals are averaging just 359.8 yards (86th) and 18.75 points (105th) per game, and their running-back-by-committee approach has failed to gain traction (120.75 ypg, 91st), which has allowed opponents to put tremendous pressure on their quarterbacks (16 sacks in ‘11).

"It will be interesting [to see] what we get this week," UNC head coach Everett Withers said. "They play two different quarterbacks, their offense has been a little bit in flux, so we could get wildcat all game, we could get no huddle all game. We really don't know. We've tried to plan for a lot of different things."

True freshman backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (32-of-50 passing, 341 yards, 3 TD, 3 INT) directed the Cardinals against Marshall, but starting signal caller Will Stein (49-of-79 passing, 615 yards, 5 TD, INT) will be a game-time decision on Saturday with a likely scenario that he will take the field.

"I think I could have played on Saturday, but now I feel 100 percent ready to go," Stein told the Louisville Courier-Journal. "My arm might not be completely 100 percent — it's probably 85 or 90 — but that's good enough for me. I can complete every pass I need to."

Whichever quarterback starts for Louisville will encounter a North Carolina defense that is looking to get back on track after allowing its last three opponents to amass over 460 yards per game. UNC's defense has played below expectations in allowing 381.8 total yards and 258.8 passing yards per outing, but still ranks 43rd nationally in run defense (123.0) and 36th in scoring defense (20.8 ppg).

Defensive leader and starting middle linebacker Kevin Reddick is questionable with a high ankle sprain, but the most-talked about news regarding UNC's defense this week has been cornerback Jabari Price's return to the starting lineup and Tre Boston's corresponding move back to safety.

UNC's front four will attempt to keep steady pressure on a Louisville offensive line that returned just one starter from '10. The Tar Heels are averaging 2.2 sacks (50th) and 6.6 tackles for loss (T-36) per game.

North Carolina is tied for 22nd nationally in red zone defense percentage (.72), allowing just seven touchdowns in 18 trips by its opponents, but the negative angle highlights the fact that only three ACC schools – N.C. State, Boston College and Virginia – have allowed more red zone opportunities.

On the flip side of the field, Bryn Renner ((87-of-115 passing, 1,127 yards, 11 TD, 6 INT) and his Tar Heel offense rank 61st nationally in red zone offense (.83) but have posted a touchdown on each their red zone scores – the only ACC team to accomplish that feat.

"Once we start a possession there, we're like, 'We've got to get this in,'" Renner said. "No offense to our kickers, but we really don't want them to kick the field goals. We want them to kick extra points."

Renner threw five interceptions against previous blitzing-style defenses in Rutgers and Georgia Tech this season, so it's likely that Louisville will send defenders from various directions in hopes of creating similar results. The red-shirt sophomore quarterback will lean on freshman Gio Bernard (78 carries, 568 yards, 7 TD) to alleviate some of that pressure.

A win on Saturday would move UNC to 5-1 for the first time since 2008 and improve its home record to 4-0 for the first time since 1997.

Inside Carolina Top Stories