The 2011 Louisville Cardinals are a young and hungry team still trying to find their rhythm and identity. Second-year-coach Charlie Strong and his staff have plenty of talent to utilize, but the best players on the team also happen to be the youngest.
The style of football the Cardinals play is similar to most Big East schools, as they try and get the game to the point that it finishes as a grinder. The offense is patient and methodical, while the defense is attacking and athletic.
The U of L Offense
The Louisville offense starts similar to where West Virginia's does, at the quarterback position. He's no Geno Smith, but true freshman Teddy Bridgewater will be a conference star for years to come. The highly-touted prospect has taken over sole control of the offense as a dual-threat option. Even with his size (6-foot-3, 195-punds) and skill-set, Bridgewater looks to set up the pass even while on the run. He is patient in the pocket and will take the big hits throughout the game. Still, he has the occasional freshman moment when an errant throw changes the complection of the game. As a decision-maker, he is beyond his years. Bridgewater won't take many chances down-the-field outside of 1-on-1 situations, in which he has shown solid touch thus far. His numbers aren't great (78 of 126 for 831 yards; five TDs, six INTs), but he manages the game well.
Accompanying Bridgewater in the Louisville backfield is any one of three very different backs. Jeremy Wright is the best of the bunch, and he is coming off of a 100-yard effort against the stingy Rutgers defense. Wright has the best ability of the three to break tackles and hit the home run. Dominique Brown is more of a bruiser who gets the bulk of the goal-line work. Vic Anderson, the third running back on the roster with at least 43 carries and 200 yards, is a slasher who can create problems as a receiver out of the backfield. The trio has combined for 785 yards on the ground, with just a pair of touchdowns. Brown is the best of the three in blitz-pickup. The plan to utilize them is often balanced, as is the scheme. Louisville will run to the strong side of the formation nearly every time they choose to keep the ball on the ground.
On the outside, the Cardinals are not very explosive. Similar to the Syracuse wideouts, there is not an established deep threat although production has been steady underneath. The biggest threat, literally and figuratively, is Josh Chichester. At 6-foot-8, 240 pounds and athletic, he poses a threat the SU defense has not yet seen. He lines up as both a tight end and receiver, and leads the team with 280 yards thus far. The most balanced WR on the roster is Michaelee Harris, a high school teammate of Bridgewater's at Miami Northwetsern. Harris will make some sensational catches given the chance, as he did last week in the big win over RU, when he hauled in the eventual game-winning score while beating the defender in man-to-man coverage. Harris has good feet coupled with the ability to make the first man miss. Eli Rogers also has made a mark this season, hauling in 19 passes for 218 yards. The unselfish group has five players with at least 12 catches and six with over 127 yards through the air. Bridgewater doesn't favor any one particular target either, considering seven different options have touchdown catches to their name.
When the backs and receivers are solid but the offense is ranked just 100th in the country, there has to be some inconsistencies up front. The U of L offensive line is anchored by a good center in Mario Benavides, but he is flanked by a pair of freshman guards – and another freshman rotates into the guard-mix on occasion. Both tackles are veterans, and they help protect Bridgewater to the point that he wasn't sacked last week. In the running game, however, the unit is predictable. This allows defenses to consistently limit what the Cardinals do on the ground, though they have had considerable success from the pistol formation.
Louisville's Strong Defense
The U of L defense is a solid group of athletes in a scheme somewhat close in nature to what the Orange try to accomplish. Pressure, slowing the run and turnovers are the name of their game. The difference is that the Cardinals are ranked 15th in the nation in total defense.
The big boys up front are perhaps the most athletic such unit SU will face in 2011. The interior trio of Roy Philon, William Savoy and Randy Salmon have combined for 11 ½ tackles for loss. The three tackles create havoc to opposing ground attacks, helping Louisville rank among the elite defenses in the country in the category. The D-line can rush the passer as well. Marcus Smith and Greg Scruggs have nearly eight combined sacks, helping the defense achieve a top-20 ranking in sacks.
The linebackers are the versatile part of the defense. Middle linebacker Dexter Heyman is a force and tackling machine, and he does it behind the line of scrimmage as well. Only four players in the Big East have more TFL's than him. Preston Brown flanks him on the strong side, often containing any runs that test the edges while Daniel Brown patrols the weak side. He will often line up at the line along with the front-four, especially against the I-formation that Syracuse often utilizes. Each of the ‘backers are fast-flowing, meaning they are somewhat vulnerable to play-action and misdirection. The defense plays plenty of zone coverage, and the group is instinctive. Heyman, also considered the leader of the defense, sealed with win over Rutgers with a picture-perfect drop and reaction to an underneath throw that he intercepted.
The Cardinals secondary is also an athletic bunch, led by the safety play. Free safety Mike Evans, along with Heyman – lead the team with a pair of picks each. Hakeem Smith is the most talented with the ball in the air and in coverage. Along with a few other players who rotate in, the unit does not allow big pass plays. On the outside, there is much more youth. The cornerbacks will sit back more times than not in zone coverage, similar to West Virginia, making the offense prove its willingness to be patient for four quarters. On a side note, the defensive backs will be playing without starting cornerback Anthony Conner, who broke his neck in last week's win. He is not paralyzed, but his football career has slim chances of resuming.
When Syracuse has the ball, it may look like the Rutgers game. Louisville's attack is based on pressure, so the offensive line will be challenged once again. It should be able to hold its own, as should Ryan Nassib in terms of patience. He displayed maturity beyond anything we've seen form him last week, so he should be expected to do it again. Antwon Bailey, Jerome Smith and Adonis Ameen-Moore will have to get positive yards every time they touch the ball, as 3rd-and-long would be a killer against an opportune Cardinals defense. Once again, Nick Provo needs some help in the consistency department as far as pass-catchers go. Dorian Graham seems to be that guy of late, but Van Chew needs to be a contributor against the young cornerbacks. He has just five receptions over the last three games.
When Louisville has the ball; Syracuse needs to test out Bridgewater's toughness. The return of Chandler Jones last week was felt throughout the team and the defense, and a similar effort may again be the ticket to defeating a promising dual-threat QB. Tackling will also be big, considering how the Cardinals utilize three backs that can all get the job done in some capacity. Marquis Spruill and Dyshawn Davis will make a much bigger impact against the more conventional scheme U of L runs. They will spread it out some, but the passing game from that set isn't consistently efficient. Even still, the cornerbacks will be tested once again – possibly by Chichester in space. Keon Lyn is coming off of maybe the best game of his career as a cover-corner, so somebody on the other side needs to match his effort. Kevyn Scott and Rishard Anderson will both get their chances. The safety play will be much more conventional, so look for Shamarko Thomas to be in the box more times than not while Phillip Thomas plays center field.
The first quarter will once again prove pivotal for the Orange, especially on the road. The distraction will be at a minimum, so expect a cautious approach by the offensive staff. The running game will set everything else up, and it should get going early and often now that Bailey has some backup. Nassib will protect the ball patiently while taking what the defense gives him, though the U of L pass-rush is nothing to mess with.
Bridgewater will take his licks, but he will turn the ball over once in each half. The key is putting up seven points instead of three with a short field ahead; and SU gets the job done. A late surge from the Cardinals will make things interesting, but it will be too little too late.
Syracuse becomes bowl-eligible, 27-14.