Jody Demling: It’s been a season of improvement for Louisville. Playing with a new staff, new system and a new QB, and playing the first seven games without their best player -- DeVante Parker -- the Cardinals had to adjust and it took awhile on offense. They didn’t look great early but the defense carried them. They have improved on offense each week, especially the offensive line, and while they played the best half of football against FSU in the first half, they have improved even since that game. Even with the change in QB in the Boston College game, the Cards showed improvement in the second half. And when this team comes out and plays free and is loose -- dancing around the field -- they play their best ball.
2.) I dismissed Louisville's No. 1 defensive ranking in 2013 due to the poor quality of competition. Now in the ACC, the Cardinals are back at it, playing top tier defense against both the pass and the run. What do they do best and who are a couple of players Irish fans should monitor on that side of the ball?
JD: I think most folks dismissed the defense last year as playing against an easier schedule and then with the loss of 2 first-round draft picks (Marcus Smith and Calvin Pryor) and one of the leading rookie tacklers in the NFL (Preston Brown), I think most fans figured the defense would not be as stout this season. But they might be better. Safety Gerod Holliman leads the country in interceptions while James Sample, the other safety, might have a decision to make on leaving school early. The safety spot was the weak point and now those two guys are leaders of the defense.
The Todd Grantham switch to a 3-4 defense has really helped this team because they have so many options they can play in the linebacker spot. Lorenzo Mauldin, who is expected back from a hamstring injury, is the best player on the defense. Linebackers James Burgess and Keith Kelsey make big play after big play but Sheldon Rankins -- the guy in the middle -- might be the MVP. Teams that have had success against U of L’s defense are the ones that handled Rankins.
JD: It’s the second time this season that Gardner has gone down with an injury, so that is big for Bonnafon. He started three games earlier in the year -- including at Clemson -- and has played some in other games. Gardner is a tough loss because he’s really good at getting the ball into DeVante Parker’s hand and letting his playmaker make the plays in the four games Parker has played.
But Bonnafon has really improved since he first came into the game. Bonnafon only played quarterback on the high school varsity level for one season (he was behind the state’s No. 2 all-time leader in completion percentage at Louisville Trinity) and played wide receiver during his junior season. This year, he played against Murray State but the next week his father unexpectedly passed away and so he missed a week. As you can tell, it’s been a tough season for Bonnafon. But he’s playing the season out in memory of his father and has really improved. He’s a threat with his arm and his legs and runs the read option really well for the Cardinals.
4.) Notre Dame's secondary has had its fill of standout receivers this fall. After facing Devin Funchess, Ty Montgomery, Rashad Greene, and Jaelen Strong, and even last week with the reemerging Kyle Prater, what can they expect from superstar DeVante Parker? And is he fully recovered from the broken foot suffered prior to the season?
JD: I would say Parker still isn’t 100 percent. He has much of his abilities back after the foot surgery but still not the burst of speed and jumping ability that we had seen before. Now with that said, he’s half way to 1,000 yards in only four games and is even better than anyone around the Louisville program could have expected. He’s so big, physical and athletic that he becomes a nightmare matchup for teams. Boston College tried to go 1-on-1 and that doesn’t work, others have bracketed him and so far nobody has stopped it.
5.) The return of Bobby Petrino mitigated any angst over the loss of Charlie Strong to Texas. Is this a Cardinals program poised to rank among the nation's contenders for the foreseeable future?
JD: Strong leaving hurt the Louisville fans because a lot of folks felt like he was here for a while but the minute he left there was a lot of support for brining Petrino back. He’s been great in the return, bringing the fans and former players back into the program. He opened spring practices and has showed he has changed as a person. His coaching style though, hasn’t, and the addition of Todd Grantham as the defensive coordinator makes a great mix for the offensive-minded Petrino. With five former five-star transfers sitting out this season, the program is in good order for this season and the future.
6.) Considering the stunning state of the Irish and the early winter blast that has leveled South Bend, tickets for this game have become readily available, a rarity for Senior Day, especially against a ranked team. Should the Irish expect a "Red Out" at Notre Dame Stadium Saturday? I've heard Cardinals fans will be arriving in droves.
JD: It’s amazing that everybody I have talked with this week seems like they are coming to South Bend. The Louisville fans do travel well and they had over 30,000 at the Sugar Bowl two years ago and more than 20,000 last season at the Russell Athletic Bowl. The Notre Dame game is way up the charts for many folks here in Louisville. It’s a big Catholic community and just the notion that Louisville will be on the field playing against Notre Dame has so many folks excited.
It’s a game the fans have waited on for a long, long time and I suspect they will come out in droves.