Cards Focus on Defense
Seven games into the 2014 season, the conversation surrounding the University of Louisville football is slightly different from what most may have expected. With offensive-minded head coach Bobby Petrino returning to the helm of the program, the consensus was that the Cardinals would be a team loaded with offensive firepower, lighting up the scoreboard at a rapid clip and filling box scores with eye-popping numbers.
Instead, the conversation has revolved around the Cards' dominant defense. Each week, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham's unit is giving more validity to the argument that the 2014 edition of the Cardinals defense might be the best in program history. With a record of 5-2, the Cards are first in the nation in total defense, allowing opponents an average on 230.7 yards of offense per game, and in rushing defense, yielding opponents an average of 60.3 yards on the ground each time out. Against the pass, the pass, the Cardinals are second in the nation in pass efficiency defense, first in passes intercepted (14), and eleventh in pass defense.
In full preparation mode for their upcoming meeting with N.C. State this weekend, a few Cardinals took time after Wednesday afternoon's practice to speak with the media. Grantham, along with defensive backs Charles Gaines and Jermaine Reve chatted about their performance thus far and a host of other topics.
With so much talk about the dominance the defensive unit has displayed throughout the first half of the season, it would be easy for Grantham and his players to get complacent. According to the man himself, though, that has not been the case.
"We've got room to improve. We've got a lot of ball games left," Grantham said.
"The thing of it is, we've got to take each week because each week's a new challenge. Each week's a new week from the standpoint of the team you're playing is a little different in what they do. So you've got to understand the nuances of that offense and how you've got to stop them. We just have to take it week by week and work to play our best every Saturday"
According to senior defensive end/outside linebacker Lorenzo Mauldin, the team has not only continued to work, but has stayed on an upward trajectory.
"I feel like we get better each week," Mauldin said Wednesday. "We face different teams that run different things, so we just adjust to what they give us. Being able to go out on the field and excel even more than we did in practice, I feel that we get way better."
As far as rankings, Grantham is simply concerned with what his team does on the field weekly, and this week, the Cardinals face an N.C. State team with an offense that has 40 points four times in thus far in 2014.
"Honestly, I just want to win another game," Grantham said. "We have a conference game at home. It's really about wins and we want to make sure that we can do our part and play to our potential and help our team win. That's been our focus, executing the game plan to win the game."
Gaines in Shutdown Mode
His statistics may be a bit misleading, but junior defensive back Charles Gaines has been the definition of a shutdown cornerback this season.
Through seven games, the third-year man out of Miami, Fla. has totaled just ten tackles. For those watching, though, this is not due to a lack of aggressiveness on the part of Gaines. Instead, it can be attributed to the fear he's placed into the minds of opposing quarterbacks, who haven't dared to throw the ball in his direction.
"No. I just stay humble. I do my job," Gaines said Wednesday, when asked if it's frustrating not having the ball thrown to his man. "If a team is not looking to throw at me, that means the other players can make plays."
Gaines looks at the job he's done blanketing receivers as freeing factor for others on the unit. In no small part, Gaines' lockdown job has helped the Cards grab a nation-leading 14 interceptions, and 24 sacks, the third-highest total in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
"It's a blessing that I have an opportunity to shut down one side of the field. It gives our safeties, our linebackers, and most of all our D-line an opportunity to make plays and get to the quarterback."
When he has been thrown at, though, Gaines has quickly reinforced the poor quality of that decision. After leading the team in interceptions last season five, Gaines has snagged one pick this season (in the team's 66-21 win over Murray State), and has been credited for seven passes defensed.
Reve Back for Defense
The Louisville defense received great news before last week's trip to Clemson, when it was informed that junior defensive back Jermaine Reve would be available for action. In his first action since rehabbing a torn ACL, Reve provided the Cardinals defense with a big boost in the 23-17 loss to the Tigers, totaling five tackles, two tackles for a loss, and a sack.
"It's exciting just to be back out there with my brothers," Reve said. "It's just a blessing to be back. When you go through all the hard work to be back out there. When your teammates are playing well, you want to get out there and join them, just contribute to the team. I'm excited to be back."
Since his redshirt freshman season in 2012, Reve has been a steady contributor for the Cards. As a redshirt freshman, the Miami, Fla. native totaled 32 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and a sack for the 11-2 Allsate Sugar Bowl champions. Last season, Reve started five games, and notched a season-high four tackles in a win over Connecticut.
"We didn't have him because he got hurt early in the spring, but it's a great example of a guy very determined about getting back on the field," defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said.
"He did everything from a rehab standpoint to be ready early. He was always in the meetings studying, so he knew our system, he knew what to do. He was a big part of us being able to make the switch with putting (defensive back, Terell) Floyd back outside. You can credit him with helping us play well last week."
While the production he's provided since his return has been apparent, fellow defensive back Charles Gaines has pointed to Reve's leadership as a major help.
"Reve, he's a communicator. He likes to read body language," Gaines said of his teammate. "So if I come out there and have a sluggish practice, he's going to let me know about myself. I feel like he's a big brother to the defense. He's going to keep me hungry. When I see his energy and I see him trying to make a play, it just makes me want to make more plays."