Despite a surprising season in 2010, which included a bowl victory over Larry Fedora’s Southern Mississippi squad, Charlie Strong entered his second season as head coach at Louisville with uncertain expectations. The Cardinals were chock-full of talent due to Strong’s stellar recruiting ability, but the team lacked experience.
The youth and inexperience showed early in 2011 as Louisville lost four of its first six games, including a 14-7 defeat at North Carolina on October 8. However, as the season progressed, the Cardinals became more comfortable and began to play up to their potential. Louisville (7-6, 5-2 Big East) finished the season with five wins in its final six games of the regular season, including a surprising 38-35 win at No. 24 West Virginia. The Cardinals earned a share of the Big East title as well as a berth in the Belk Bowl, where they lost 31-24 to N.C. State.
Louisville started 11 freshmen last fall, so naturally, the Cardinals return plenty of personnel in 2012. Reigning Big East Rookie of the Year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is the most notable returnee. Overall, Louisville returns 17 starters, including nine on a defense that ranked 23rd in total defense last fall (327.92 ypg) and ranks 16th in scoring defense (10.50 ppg) so far this season.
“There are a lot more athletes on the edges. There’s a big, physical offensive line. There’s an experienced quarterback. I don’t know anything about their running back, but the one we faced last year is a solid running back. It’s the head coach we played against at Southern Miss in the bowl game. It’s his offense. I heard coach [Clint] Hurtt yesterday preaching on how fast they are with the no huddle. So, it’s going to be a big challenge for us this week.” – Louisville defensive tackle Brandon Dunn
“I have some familiarity with Charlie [Strong] and we’ve worked together before. [Louisville defensive coordinator] Vance Bedford and I have worked together before, so I know those guys. I know how those kids are going to get coached. I know what the expectation level will be on that side and I know he’ll have them ready to play.” –UNC coach Larry Fedora.
Matchups to Watch
Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater vs. UNC’s Defense
When Bridgewater last faced North Carolina it was his second career start and the Miami (Fla.) Northwestern product was 19-of-30 passing for 173 yards with one touchdown and one interception in the loss. Less than a year later Bridgewater is arguably the most improved quarterback in the country. Through two games, the sophomore is 49-of-60 passing for 576 yards to go along with a couple of scores and no interceptions. He is the 12th rated passer in the country,
Following comfortable victories over Kentucky and Missouri State, North Carolina presents the biggest challenge thus far for Louisville and Bridgewater. However, the challenge of stopping Bridgewater is equally as tough for a Tar Heel squad that struggled to defend the pass in a 28-27 loss to Wake Forest last weekend.
North Carolina surrendered 362 passing yards to the Demon Deacons. Quarterback Tanner Price threw for a career high 327 yards and flanker Michael Campanaro caught 13 balls for 164 yards. While Price is capable of beating plenty of teams with his arm, Bridgewater combines an arm that is just as, if not more, accurate with the added threat of mobility.
“Offensively, that quarterback is extremely talented,” Fedora told reporters on Monday. “Extremely talented. He can beat you with his legs or he can beat you with his arm.”
Despite his speed, Bridgewater is not a run-first quarterback. He only has 23 rushing yards on the season largely because of his ability to throw the ball accurately. His 81.7% completion mark ranks second in the country behind only West Virginia’s Geno Smith. Bridgewater is the only quarterback in the top-10 in completion percentage that has at least 60 attempts.
North Carolina struggled to defend the pass against Wake Forest in part because of the lack of pressure on the quarterback. If the Tar Heels want to limit Bridgewater’s effectiveness they must add to their total of three sacks this season. Even if Sylvester Williams, Kareem Martin and company do force Bridgewater out of the pocket, the North Carolina perimeter speed will be tested trying to keep the quarterback from taking off downfield.
Louisville’s Secondary vs. UNC’s Wide Receivers
One of the biggest question marks surrounding North Carolina coming into this season was the wide receiver position. With the need for a large group of receivers to contribute in Fedora’s spread offense, senior Erik Highsmith was the lone returning starter and consistent producer at the position. Preseason injuries to T.J. Thorpe and Reggie Wilkins only added to the concern.
Sophomore lacrosse player Mark McNeill, sophomore Sean Tapley and freshman Quinshad Davis have aimed to filled the void, but if senior speedster Jhay Boyd is unable to go on Saturday following an injury against Wake Forest, the wide receiver position will be even thinner, and even less experienced.
Against a veteran secondary last week at Wake Forest, Tar Heel receivers occasionally struggled to gain separation and looked confused at times. On North Carolina’s second to last possession of the game, Highsmith and quarterback Bryn Renner appeared to have a misunderstanding on a route and Tapley did not seem sure of where he needed to be on fourth down.
While some of the struggles could be credited to the growing pains of installing a new offensive system as well as Renner’s tentativeness following the big hit he took in the first half, the experienced Demon Deacon secondary deserves plenty of credit. The Tar Heels only completed three passes to wide receivers in the fourth quarter and two of those came on a desperation drive that started on the North Carolina one yard-line with 17 seconds remaining.
Louisville returns all four starters in the secondary from 2011, including two All-Big East performers in junior safety Hakeem Smith and senior cornerback Adrian Bushell. Last year, the duo combined for 134 tackles, six tackles-for-loss, 12 pass breakups and two interceptions. Bushell also added two blocked kicks. They are joined by a pair of sophomores, Calvin Pryor and Andrew Johnson, who appeared in a combined 24 games in 2011.
“They can give your quarterback a lot of problems,” Fedora said. “Their secondary, they like to play a lot of man coverage. They’re fast.”
With Louisville playing plenty of man-to-man coverage, the young Tar Heel receivers must be comfortable and confident in their route running in order to gain separation and get open for Renner. If not, Renner will be forced to throw the ball in tight spots or be subjected to a pass rush that was 21st in the country in sacks (2.54 per game) last season.