Elevating Execution

Louisville's much-overlooked defense has made steady improvement over the last two games, and appears on the verge of finally piecing together a full 60-minute performance.

Up next, No. 7 West Virginia (7-1, 2-1 Big East), easily among the nation's most difficult teams to stop. The offense has yet to be contained by any foe, even a South Florida team viewed as having held the WVU offense down. Check the stats again: 188 rushing yards, 249 passing yards and methodical movement between the 20s. The Bulls stiffened in the red zone and made just enough plays to win against a superior team. That's arguably the same approach Louisville will take, especially considering the Cardinals lack the cornerback play of USF and its overall defensive speed. Instead, UL hopes to better contain an offense that scored nearly at will in the 44-34 loss last season other than the two fumbles by superback Steve Slaton, caused primarily by his numbed arm than the Cards' defense.

The Mountaineers totaled 318 rushing yards on 50 carries and threw for 222 yards while registering drives of 80, 81, 91 and 92 yards. Patrick White alone accounted for 347 total yards, ninth best in school history, and the then-sophomore ran for a career-best four touchdowns. Slaton rushed for 156 yards and caught three passes for 74 yards. WVU's jet, or quick, offense ran nearly to perfection besides the turnovers, and one would think this game could be similar, considering Louisville lost numerous starters and had yet to even begin to jell – up until its Oct. 19 game at UConn. The Cards, to that point, had been torched by Middle Tennessee State, Kentucky, Syracuse and Utah for 42, 40, 38 and 44 points and tallies like SU's 423 yards and four touchdowns via the pass and the Utes' 582 yards of offense in a very balanced attack that bombarded UL with chunks of ground gains.

The problems were easily identifiable: lack of negative plays, poor tackling, players out of position and a time of transition for a unit with a new head coach, if the same defensive coordinator in fourth-year mentor Mike Cassity. But the Kentucky native, and UK grad, has restored a bit of the backbone to a unit that still ranks 63rd nationally in rush defense (154 ypg), 92nd in pass defense (257 ypg) and 81st in total defense (411 ypg). It ranks seventh out of eight Big East teams in those stats, as well as scoring defense, allowing an average of 27 points per game, good for 66th in the NCAA.

Louisville averages 5.22 tackles for loss and 1.67 sacks per game, 95th and 99th in the country, respectively. That's the best stat, as well as turnovers forced (20, on 14 fumble recoveries and six interceptions), for pegging a defense's true ability to slow a foe. A lack of those plays, and there has been a severe shortage at UL, mean a ton of potential problems. It means little penetration and no pressure. It means not tackling well when opportunities are present for negative yardage plays. It means likely not forcing foes into uncomfortable downs and distances to setup chances – which equates with not making base plays to begin with that lead to such.

"They had a few let downs this season," White said. "They have been known to bust a few coverages. Hopefully I can take advantage of every little mistake they make or any things they give us. Hopefully they will give us a bead on something, but I still feel that they are hungry to win."

Louisville has shown competitive signs in its last two outings, those coming against a UConn team that managed just 14 offensive points and Pitt, which scored 17. Neither is known as an offensive power, especially the Panthers, a squad that has yet to truly move the ball on any foe outside of a Navy team that allowed even Notre Dame to score 44 points. The Cards held the Huskies to little more than 300 yards, and limited Pitt to 107 yards rushing and 163 passing, the lowest total output this season. Both teams scored one touchdown each via the run and pass.

"They have rallied a bit," WVU offensive lineman Ryan Stanchek said. "I watched a game earlier in the year and you watch now, and they are tackling a lot better. They are tackling well and they look very quick. They are a very aggressive defense and it's the same players who beat us last year, so you have to give them all the respect in the world."

In the last three games, a 2-1 stretch, Louisville has allowed an average of just 21 points per game, holding all three foes to less than 25 points. The trio managed a mean of 139 yards rushing and 206 yards passing, significant improvements from the first six games (30.7 points and 445 yards of total offense per outing). The Cardinals are getting off the field better on third down, partially because of their better tackling and coverage, which leads to more difficult third down attempts. Again, though, the power-run based formations of Connecticut and Pitt don't offer any of the same schematic challenges as does West Virginia.

"All we can do is go out there and execute," Mountaineer wideout Dorrell Jalloh said. "Sometimes when you expect to go out there and do it and it doesn't happen, you can get untracked. We'll go and do our best and try to play fast. We have to play extremely hard and stay focused."

The lack thereof hurt in the form of the three turnovers in the 2006 game, all fumbles. Combined with the punt return for a score, they were the difference in a contest in which the Mountaineer offense outscored the Louisville offense 34-30. This season, the Cards are forcing nearly two fumbles per game, a concern for Slaton and other West Virginia ball carriers, as turnovers are, as always, again expected to be a statistic that looms over all else.

"I remember the fumbles from last year, the two fumbles; that stands out the most," Slaton said. "Their defense is doing well. They struggled a bit at the beginning of they year. They are back on track and not allowing so many points. They are better. They played better the last two games."

Slaton, like White, noted that he obviously preferred not to get in another shootout with Louisville. The last two games between the schools have totaled 168 points. Only the 1993 meeting, a 36-34 home win that boosted then-No. 24 West Virginia into the top 15 after its defeat of then-No. 17 Louisville, has come close in terms of a competitive, high-scoring game. In that game, the Mountaineers rallied from down 21-10 on the strength of tailback Robert Walker's 161 yards and three scores, a scene repeated when Slaton splashed onto the national radar with his six-score performance in the 2005 contest.

WVU leads the series, 6-2, and can extend that to seven of nine by simply playing well. It need not to anything extraordinary, especially with one new secondary starter and a defensive backfield that is still struggling. Up front, the Mountaineers have enough talent and ability to move the football against a defense that very well could fold if it gets hammered early. The match-ups lean heavily to West Virginia here, but it must execute and block effectively.

"I hope we don't get into (a shootout); I hope we dominate for four quarters," White said. "I think from the first game in this series, it has been a big, big game for both sides. It's a big game, a Thursday game that will again be exciting. We just have to keep going along and play West Virginia football. It's in our hands. We just have to keep winning football games."

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