Overview: Charlie Strong entered last fall, his second as head coach of the Louisville Cardinals, still trying to pick up the pieces left behind by his predecessor Steve Kragthorpe. Strong was mildly successful in his first season (7-6, 3-4 Big East), but with just three returning starters on offense and six on defense, not much was expected from Louisville last fall.
Despite low expectations, Strong was able to lead the Cardinals (7-6, 5-2 Big East) to a second consecutive bowl appearance in 2011. Louisville lost 31-24 to N.C. State in the Belk Bowl, but an early season comeback victory over Kentucky, the first against the Wildcats in five tries, and a late season upset at No. 24 West Virginia made for a better than expected season.
Louisville struggled on offense last season, including in a 14-7 defeat at North Carolina on Oct. 8 in which the Cardinals mustered just 273 total yards. Overall, the unit ranked 103rd out of 120 FBS schools in total offense (333 ypg) and 98th in scoring offense (21.92 ppg). Fortunately, after all the attrition entering last season, the Cardinals return eight players on the offensive side of the ball this fall.
True freshman quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (191-of-296 passing, 2129 yards, 14 TD, 12 INT) replaced an injured Will Stein (52-of-84 passing, 620 yards, 5 TD, 1 INT) against Kentucky and started the remaining ten games of the season. Bridgewater, who was highly recruited out of Miami (Fla.) Northwestern High School, was named 2011 Big East Rookie of the Year and is now cemented as the starter. Coming into 2012 he has the help of four returning starters along the offensive line as well as 2011 leading receiver Michaelee Harris (37 rec, 455 yards, 2 TD).
Even as excitement builds around the young Louisville offense, the majority of the credit for Louisville's success last year lies with the performance of the defense. Louisville ranked 23rd in total defense (327.92 ypg) and 17th in scoring defense (20.08 ppg). Specifically, the Cardinals were impressive against the run, surrendering the 10th fewest yards on the ground (100.54 ypg) in the country.
The defense looks to take another step this fall with the return of nine starters, including three along the defensive line. The entire starting secondary returns as well. Safety Hakeem Smith (84 tackles, 1 INT) was named to the All-Big East team last fall and leads a secondary that ranked 59th in pass efficiency defense (129.74) last fall. Cornerback and former Florida transfer Adrian Bushell (50 tackles, 1 INT) is also an All-Big East caliber player.
Strong, who was the defensive coordinator at Florida and South Carolina prior to taking the head job in Louisville, has already put a good defense on the field. If Bridgewater and the offense can make any sort of progress, the Cardinals should compete for the top spot in the Big East.
Quotable: "Well you know one thing we need to do, let's tone it down with the fans number one, because expectations are out there. You look at the first two years, we we're picked last and this year for some reason people think we're going to have this outstanding football team. It's all about work, it's all about our players understanding that you still have to play the game" – Strong on the increased expectations.
Matchup to Watch: With West Virginia's departure to the Big XII, the Big East title is up for grabs in 2012. Rutgers and Louisville are the two most popular picks to win the league and the two just so happen to meet in Piscataway during the final week of the season on Thurs., Nov. 29. With Rutgers adjusting to a new coach after Greg Schiano left to join the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, now is an opportune time for Louisville to win the Big East. With four of their five road games against bowl teams from last season, it is only fitting the Cardinals have to face the Scarlet Knights on the road.
Reunited: Strong and North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora were on the same staff at Florida from 2002-04 under Ron Zook. Fedora was the offensive coordinator for the Gators while Strong was the defensive coordinator. Strong and Fedora actually met as head coaches two years ago in the Beef O'Brady's Bowl. Louisville defeated Fedora's Southern Mississippi squad 31-28.
Sept. 2 Kentucky
Sept. 8 Missouri State
Sept. 15 North Carolina
Sept. 22 @ Florida International
Sept. 29 @ Southern Mississippi
Oct. 6 OPEN DATE
Oct. 13 @ Pittsburgh
Oct. 20 South Florida
Oct. 26 Cincinnati
Nov. 3 Temple
Nov. 10 @ Syracuse
Nov. 17 OPEN DATE
Nov. 24 Connecticut
Nov. 29 @ Rutgers
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