Last year, Adam Froman made his debut as a starter against Pitt. That night--a Friday night game at Louisville--Froman completed 18-of-30 passes for 130 yards. He didn't throw any touchdowns, but didn't throw any interceptions either.
Froman is obviously a much more experienced quarterback since that game, but from what the Panther players and coaches have seen so far, he can be a dual-threat. Froman is averaging 221.6 yards passing this season, completing 60 percent of his passes, and has thrown 11 touchdowns to just six interceptions. Though Louisville builds its offense around its running game, Froman can be effective throwing the ball, and isn't afraid to take chances on the ground.
Thinking back to last year, Pitt players and coaches see a much different quarterback, and someone they believe will be a challenge to them.
"Now, he's the ring leader," safety Dom DeCicco said. "You see he gets everything going. You could really tell the way he's the leader of that group."
The Cardinals are a well-balanced team. Though Froman has the ability to steal the show, Bilal Powell has been doing it all year for the Cardinals.
Powell crossed the 1,000-yard mark last week--the first Big East running back to do so this year--and is the centerpiece of the Louisville offense. The Cardinals lead the Big East in rushing, averaging 211.1 yards a game. Powell averages 143.3 of those yards. He is joined by former Big East Freshman of the Year, Victor Anderson, who provides a nice compliment. Powell and Anderson don't share carries the way Dion Lewis and Ray Graham do this year, but perhaps Powell and Anderson's totals are comparable to the way Lewis and Graham gained yards in 2009, respectively.
"(Powell) is a great running back," linebacker Max Gruder said. "Charlie Strong has really implemented a good system there. Everybody knows what he can do. He's like our two running backs--he has a little combination of speed, power. He can make you miss. He can run you over. He can break a lot of tackles."
One player who will be up to the challenge is Brandon Lindsey, who leads Pitt with eight sacks. The challenge for Lindsey this week will be to provide that pass rush again, but to also come downhill against the run and prove he can be effective there too.
"Brandon, he's small, but he has strength," Sheard said. "At first, I think he was a little intimidated because of our size. He's used to playing the pass a lot, but now I think he's getting more physical. He goes against Jason Pinkston every day in practice, who is a great offensive lineman. Jason Pinkston has got him a lot better. He's continued to play better at stopping the run."
WIDE RECEIVER/TIGHT END
Though much of the talk this week has centered on Froman and Powell--moreso on Powell. Froman is putting up good numbers, so obviously he is having success finding some targets.
Just as the offense is balanced, so is the distribution of the ball. It's very similar to Pitt's corps of receivers. Jon Baldwin may look to be the go-to guy in Pitt's offense, but others such as Mike Shanahan and Devin Street can hurt the secondary just as well. It's the same with Louisville. Graham, the tight end, creates a unique matchup.
"They're so much improved, and they're balanced in the run and pass," safety Jarred Holley said. "It will be a real good challenge for us."
Louisville's offensive line is as good and experienced as it gets. The line has four senior starters--left tackle Byron Stingily (6-5, 300), left guard Mark Wetterer (6-5, 306), right guard Conrad Thomas (6-6, 315), right tackle Greg Tomczyk (6-6, 287). Center Mario Benavides is a sophomore, but started all 12 games last year as a freshman, and all seven games this year.
The Cardinals have allowed seven sacks all year--as many as Pitt's defensive line produced last week against Rutgers. That's an average of one sack for every 29 passing attempts on the season. On the ground, the Cardinals are averaging over 200 yards a game on the ground. Conversely, Pitt's defensive line is averaging three sacks a game, while holding opponents to 92.4 yards a game on the ground. This will be the best matchup of the day.
"Their center and left tackle are probably the best that we've seen in awhile," head coach Dave Wannstedt said. "They do a lot of schemes with their offensive line — block down and pull, stuff like that which forces to be secure. They keep you balanced. They're playing very physical right now."
While Louisville's offense is quite established, Charlie Strong is still in the process of putting his stamp on the defense. Though the Cardinals have forced two shutouts this season--including one last week at UConn, the Cardinals aren't experienced on the defensive line as their offensive counterparts are.
Defensive end Malcolm Tatum (6-3, 260) possesses a unique combination of size, speed and strength. He is the leading tackler on the defensive line with 24 tackles, and he also has two sacks on the season. His backup Rodney Gnat (6-3, 255) leads the team with 6.5 sacks, which shows the Cardinals' ability to rotate its defensive line.
Last week, the Cardinals held UConn to just 108 yards rushing--just the third time in seven games the Cardinal defense has held an opponent below 177 yards on the ground.
Though they may not be experienced as their offensive line, the defensive line has bought into Strong's physical approach.
"It's a good group of kids," guard Lucas Nix said. "There's a couple young kids in they'll rotate through. For the most part, it's a confident group. They're coming along a little bit. A lot of times, between me and the center, they'll shade one of us."
Much like Pitt's corps of linebackers, Louisville doesn't bring a whole lot of blitz. The Cardinals have a senior on the weak side in Brandon Heath (6-1, 215) and sophomore Daniel Brown (6-1, 219) on the strong side. Preston Brown has broken in as a freshman in the middle.
Between the three, the group has combined for three sacks--one by Preston Brown, and the other two from Daniel Brown. Though the run defense has been hit or miss, Louisville's linebackers are sure tacklers. Size-wise, they might not look all that big, but in exchange, they are faster and quicker than a lot of linebackers Pitt will see this year.
"They're athletic," running back Dion Lewis said. "They have some athletic linebackers that move real well. They're a pretty talented defense. A lot of their linebackers; they're always involved (in making tackles). We're just going to have to attack them and run hard."
Louisville's pass defense is allowing just 180.1 yards a game, which ranks third in the Big East. The unit has produced the same number of interceptions as Pitt's pass defense--seven--but they aid the most in defending the run.
The Cardinals like to stack the box on opponents, and facing Pitt's two-back setup of Dion Lewis and Ray Graham, there's a good chance Pitt will see some of this.
Further proof that the Cardinals like to bring their safeties up, the Cardinals top three tacklers are all members of the secondary. Sophomore Shenard Holton (6-1, 190) leads the team with 40 tackles. Safety Hakeem Smith (6-1, 175) is second on the team with 36 tackles, followed by corner Johnny Patrick (6-0, 186) who leads the team with three interceptions.
"Their d-backs aren't afraid to tackle," Lewis added. "Their safety never really misses too many tackles from what I've seen so far. They're a bunch of tough kids. They're all flying to the ball, and you can see that. Whatever they're doing over there, they've changed from the past couple of years. They're really into everything they're doing."