Keys to the Louisville Game

Louisville was expected to run roughshod through the Big East but now trails South Florida and is tied with Rutgers. Every game is a must-win situation if the Cards are going to play in the Gator Bowl. Rutgers emerged as the surprise story of the Big East. But Rutgers has yet to beata good team. Louisville is Rutgers' last such opportunity. Rutgers is not likely to upset Louisville but can give the Cardinals a good game. Here are my five keys to a good game at Louisville.

KEYS TO THE LOUISVILLE GAME


Rutgers and Louisville have met four previous times, as eastern independents between 1976 and 1986.  Though Louisville has had the more successful program over this period, each of the games – two separate home-and-home series – coincidentally occurred during a downswing for Louisville and an upswing for Rutgers.  As a result, Rutgers holds a surprising edge in the series, 4-0.  The last contest occurred in 1986 at Cardinals Stadium.  The Scarlet Knights dismantled Louisville 41-0 on their way to a 5-5-1 season. 

The game started slowly, with a scoreless 1st Quarter.  Greg Alvord caught a 7-yard TD pass from QB Scott Erney early in the 2nd Quarter to give Rutgers the lead.  PK Doug Giesler extended the Rutgers lead to 10-0 with a 42-yard FG.  RB Dan Lipsett caught a 3-yard TD pass to give the Scarlet Knights a commanding lead at halftime.  Giesler connected on a 43-yard FG to open the 3rd Quarter, giving Rutgers a 20-0 lead.  Erney threw a 39-yard TD pass to WR Eric Young and hit Lipsett with a 9-yard TD pass, increasing the Scarlet Knight lead to 34-0 late in the 3rd Quarter.  RB Eric Reid capped the scoring with a 16-yard TD run in the 4th Quarter.  The Scarlet Knight defense limited the Cardinals to minus 38 rushing yards and only 202 passing yards in a dominating performance.  Meanwhile, a balanced Scarlet Knight offense gained 270 rushing yards on a whopping 60 carries while Erney threw for an additional 223 yards.  Rutgers held a commanding 36:56-23:04 edge in time of possession in running 88 plays to only 62 for Louisville. 

After threatening to crash the BCS last year, finishing in the season ranked #10, retaining Head Coach Bobby Petrino, and returning eleven starters (plus a kicker), Louisville was expected to run roughshod through the Big East, whose upper echelon was rebuilding.  Didn't happen.  After sailing through a middling non-conference schedule, the Cardinals were stunned by South Florida in a shocking upset in Tampa.  Dreams of a national championship appearance burst.  And the Big East championship was suddenly up for grabs.  Louisville lost again, to West Virginia in 3OT, after blowing a 17-point 4th Quarter lead.  Suddenly, the new king was dead.  The Cardinals rebounded to beat Cincinnati and Pittsburgh to even their league record.  Louisville (6-2, 2-2) trails South Florida and is tied with Rutgers.  Every game is a must-win situation if the Cards are going to play on New Years Day in the Gator Bowl. 

Rutgers (6-3, 3-2) emerged as the surprise story of the Big East season.  The Scarlet Knights essentially eliminated Pittsburgh, Syracuse, and Connecticut from bowl consideration.  But the record was a mirage.  Rutgers has not beaten a good team yet this season.  South Florida, having played a far tougher schedule – but only one game in the previous five weeks – demonstrated that kicking tomato cans does not make a team good.  It makes a team good at kicking tomato cans.  Five years into the Schiano era, Rutgers still cannot beat good teams.  One cannot reasonably consider Rutgers good – looming bowl bid notwithstanding – until Rutgers starts beating good teams on a consistent basis.  Louisville is Rutgers' last such opportunity in the regular season.  However, Louisville is awesome at Papa John's Stadium.  Rutgers is not likely to upset Louisville on the road on national TV.  However, the Scarlet Knights can make a statement and give a good game in a tough environment.  Here are my five keys to a good game at Louisville. 


TEAM KEYS

1.  Ball Control.  Louisville is an offensive juggernaut on its home field.  The Cardinals are averaging 59 points per game at Papa John's Stadium.  The loss to South Florida presented evidence that Rutgers is not good but merely the beneficiary of a ridiculously easy non-conference schedule in a downtrodden Big East.  Rutgers cannot afford to get into a track meet with the high-octane Cardinal offense.  Not with the way the Rutgers offensive engine is knocking and pinging.  The Louisville defense reminds me of the 2001 Syracuse defense led by DE Dwight Freeney.  That Orange defense was a big play unit, yielding a lot of yardage but not a lot of points.  Likely Big East Defensive Player of the Year Sr DE Elvis Dumervil dominates games off the edge in a manner similar to Freeney.  The Cardinals defense is a big play unit that can yield yards and points if it isn't making plays.  The Cardinals are allowing only 119 rushing yards per game and (#28 nationally of 117 Division IA teams) and 3.0 yards per carry.  However, those statistics are strongly influenced by the Cardinals sack total. 

Rutgers must run the football down Louisville's throat until the Cardinals demonstrate that they can consistently stop the run.  Fr TB Ray Rice averaged over 6 yards per carry against South Florida last week.  Yet Offensive Coordinator Craig Ver Steeg repeatedly took the ball out of Rice's hands to run cute gimmick plays.  Or took Rice off the field to run 3WR formations with a struggling QB.  Ver Steeg must leave the gimmicks at home.  Stick with what works.  Louisville stuffs a run on first down ?  So what.  Run again.  And again.  And again.  Use the run to set up short third down conversions.  Or to set up play action to RS Jr FB Brian Leonard.  Or downfield.  Don't ask RS Fr QB Mike Teel to win the game when better weapons exist at RB.  Rutgers must have a 10+ advantage in plays from scrimmage (excluding kicks).  And an eight-minute advantage in time of possession. 

2.  Slow the Cardinals' Pass Rush.  Louisville is second the Big East in sacks (33), led by Dumervil (20).  Like Rutgers, Louisville's DEs are undersized but fast.  Petrino also likes to blitz from all directions and relies heavily upon zone blitzes to create pressure without compromising pass coverage underneath.  The most effective method of slowing Louisville's pass rush will be to avoid obvious passing situations.  2nd-n-long should be a running down.  Especially at the undersized Cardinal DEs, who may be rushing upfield in anticipation of pass.  Ver Steeg also must call a healthy dose of draw plays and screen passes on 3rd-n-long to counterpunch an overly aggressive pass rush.  Ver Steeg must protect Teel with smart playcalling.  Not ask Teel to do too much.  Rutgers pass plays should occur primarily on 1st/2nd down play action.  Or on 3rd-n-short.  Ver Steeg must not paint a bullseye on Teel for Dumervil to hit. 

3.  Minimize Turnovers.  Rutgers has played only two good teams – West Virginia and South Florida – in nine games.  Against these two, Rutgers has committed ten turnovers.  Rutgers spotted both teams 21-0 leads.  And the Scarlet Knights committed costly turnovers that fueled the opponents' quick starts.  Rutgers is not talented enough, efficient enough, or well enough coached to badly lose the turnover margin and still win.  If Rutgers plays giveaway at Louisville, the Cardinals will run the Scarlet Knights right out of the building.  Rutgers must not commit more than one turnover to compete against a more talented, more experienced team. 

4.  CB Cushions.  The Scarlet Knight CBs gave the South Florida WRs 10-yard cushions at the outset of the game.  The exceedingly generous cushions allowed Bulls QB Pat Julmiste, one of the lesser QBs in the Big East, to play pitch-n-catch with his WRs.  Julmiste completed his first nine passes for 102 yards.  Louisville has a vastly superior QB in So Brian Brohm.  The Cardinals also possess a substantially better receiving corps.  Rutgers has not faced a passing attack of the quality of Louisville.  Illinois, Villanova, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh each pale in comparison.  Yet Rutgers yielded an average of 273 passing yards per game to these four opponents.  Schiano cannot afford to let Brohm play pitch-n-catch with his receivers.  That will fuel a blowout.  Louisville will primarily deploy 3WR formations.  Schiano must not play a base 4-3 Cover 2 scheme.  Such a defense will put an OLB on a Cardinal slot WR – that is a mismatch.  Further, if Schiano moves a safety up into an eight-man front (seven actually, since one is flexed out over the slot WR), he plays a safety at LB (with a LB playing DB).  That seems to be an unwise use of personnel, at least on a consistent basis.  If Schiano is going to use the base defense against 3WR formations, he should move the safety up over the slot WR and slide in the OLB back inside.  Schiano must primarily play a nickel scheme against the 3WR formations.  When in Cover 2, the cushions should be 5-6 yards, not 10 yards.  Schiano can slide a safety up to LB depth for a seven-man front and play Cover 1 behind; the CBs must mix press coverage with looser coverage.  But the looser coverage must also be 5-6 yard cushions. 

5.  Pressure Cardinal QB Brian Brohm.  Brohm is the leading passer in the Big East at 294 yards per game.  He has completed 69% of his passes and has thrown 14 TD passes to only 3 INTs.  The Scarlet Knight secondary is bad.  The ease with which Julmiste carved the Rutgers secondary speaks volumes.  If Brohm is allowed time to patiently scan the Rutgers secondary, he will incinerate the Scarlet Knight defense.  Schiano must apply pressure to Brohm early and often.  The Rutgers DLine must create pressure with a four-man pass rush.  Schiano also must blitz Brohm from a variety of angles – MLB, OLB, safeties, nickel CBs, and boundary CBs.  He must mix in a liberal dose of zone blitzes so as not to consistently leave the middle undefended.  He must disguise his blitzes so that Brohm and his receivers cannot make simple adjustments into vacated zones.  Rutgers must sack Brohm at least three times. And must hurry him twice as often.  And must repeatedly knock him down.  Without getting flagged for roughing. 


KEY INDIVIDUALS

1.  Fr TB Ray Rice.  Ver Steeg foolishly tried to beat South Florida behind the shaky passing of Hart rather than the effective running of Rice.  The Scarlet Knights offense functions most efficiently with Rice and Leonard on the field together.  Defenses must respect the threat of Rice's running and Leonard's receiving.  Not to mention the threats of Rutgers' talented receiving corps.  Against South Florida, Ver Steeg waited too long to lean on Rice even though Ray gained 13 yards on his first two carries.  Bad things kept happening with Rice on the sidelines.  Rest him on the field.  As a decoy.  Otherwise, give him the ball early and often.  Rice must get at least 25 carries and must gain at least 125 rushing yards. 

2.  RS Fr QB Mike Teel.  Schiano has wisely given the starting nod to Teel this week.  Not because Mike is better than Sr QB Ryan Hart – Mike isn't.  But because Teel is healthier than Hart and Schiano needs a healthy Hart for the season finale against Cincinnati.  Schiano cannot afford to risk Hart at Louisville and lose him for Cincinnati.  In three halves as the starter, Teel has shown why playing as freshman QB is a risky proposition.  Mike has shown tremendous potential.  He has also made terrible mistakes.  Schiano must use this game as a learning experience for Teel.  Don't concede the game.  But put the kid in position to succeed.  Teel must direct a passing game that counter punches an effective ground game.  He must complete short passes to his receivers to beat the Cardinal pass rush and move the chains.  Teel must throw downfield when Louisville cheats forward its secondary in run support (or to jump short pass routes).  But Mike must not force passes into coverage.  He must read Louisville's zone blitzes and find the open receiver.  Teel must complete at least 60% of his passes for at least 225 yards.  He must not throw more than one INT.  And he cannot fumble. 

3.  RS Sr DE Ryan Neill.  In the biggest game of a season that has seen increasingly important games as Rutgers continued to win, Neill had one of his quietest games of the season against South Florida.  He recorded 8 tackles but no TFLs or sacks.  The rest of the DLine mirrored his performance.  Rutgers applied negligible pressure to Julmiste, who dissected the Rutgers secondary in the 1st Half.  If the Rutgers defense is going to contain the potent Cardinal offense, Neill must have a big game.  The ESPN spotlight will be on Dumervil.  Neill must show that there is more than one outstanding DE on the field.  Ryan must register at least six tackles, two TFLs, and a sack. 

4.  RS Jr FB Brian Leonard.  Brian has been quiet through the middle portion of the schedule.  After gaining over 100 all-purpose yards in three of Rutgers first four games (131 yards per game average), he has broken 100 yards only twice – and just barely – in the past five (85 yards per game).  Defenses have keyed on stopping Leonard.  And the emergence of Rice at TB has eased Leonard's considerable burden.  Brian has settled into his natural role of FB, short-yardage TB, and single RB.  It's time for Brian to have a big game.  Louisville apparently struggles to cover RBs out of the backfield.  Rutgers needs a heavy dose of passes to Leonard to execute a ball-control offense – play action drag routes, screen passes, flares, and hook routes.  He also must pound the Cardinals defense on the ground.  Brian must gain at least 125 all-purpose yards and must score at least two TDs. 

5.  Jr DT Rameel Meekins.  Rameel has emerged as a stalwart on the interior DLine for Schiano.  He is the glue holding together a shaky DT rotation that lost four of its top five and has seen the fifth hobbled by injuries.  Meekins has recorded 43 tackles, 11 TFLs, and 5.5 sacks for the season.  He announced that the would be a contributor with a dominating effort in the season opener at Illinois (6 tackles and 2 TFLs).  He had a strong game against South Florida (8 tackles and 0.5 TFLs).  Meekins' quickness has posed problems for opposing OL.  Rameel will be facing four year starter, two-time Second Team All-Conference USA RS Sr LG Jason Spitz (6-4, 311) and two-year starter RS Jr RG Kurt Quarterman (6-5, 341).  Rameel must use his quickness to beat the Cardinal guards, penetrate the backfield, and disrupt their running plays.  He also must pressure Brohm on passes, whether beating his man inside or stunting outside around the DE.  Meekins must record at least four tackles and two TFLs.  He must hold his ground inside and allow Louisville to run over him. 


Please send any comments to dwelch11@comcast.net.  I just noticed an error in my email address hyperlink.  I apologize to those of you who have been trying to email me, to no avail.  The link has been fixed.  Drop me a line at my Comcast address.  I welcome and appreciate your feedback, even if I make it hard to do.  And please put "Rutgers" in the message header because I wouldn't want to miss your email in a sea of spam.  In the meantime, if you would like to discuss the spring camp with other Rutgers fans, please visit our message board.


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