Oct. 15, 2013
LOUISVILLE, Ky.- There is an adage that `Defense Wins Championship,' and if that is truly accurate, the University of Louisville football team is poised to win its third-straight league title.
The Cardinals put together a dominating defensive performance last Thursday in the 24-10 win over Rutgers. But it hasn't been just the win over the Scarlet Knights that has everyone taking notice of the aggressiveness of the Louisville defense.
Before the season, all the talk was focused on quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and the explosive Louisville offense, but the defense, which is almost entirely intact from a year ago, is reaching heights not many would have envisioned.
Heading into Friday night's game against UCF, the Cardinals are rated the No. 1 scoring defense in the nation and No. 2 in rushing defense and total defense.
"I think they have," Strong said when asked if his defense has surpassed his expectations. "Last year, we were kind of upset because we could have played a lot of better than what we did. Six games in, we played pretty good, but we can improve. You look at some of those third downs and we had eight sacks, but we let four get away from us. You look to see us do more. Even in the Temple game, we had opportunities to get our hands on the ball and get sacks."
Speaking of sacks, the Cardinals are doing that pretty well too, ranking third nationally with an average of 3.8 per game after recording a season-high eight last Thursday against Rutgers. With 23 sacks after six games, the Cardinals have surpassed the entire total from last season.
"We can always get better and these guys understand that," Strong said. "It's not like they feel like they have reached a level where they have leveled off, that's not going to happen. We are going to continue to get better and better and better."
The Cardinals will have to be better because they will face a solid offense led by quarterback Blake Bortles, who has thrown for 1,334 yards and nine touchdowns this year, including 288 yards and three touchdowns in a win at Penn State.
"Bortles is not going to get rattled at all," Strong said. "I just look at the Penn State game, and in front of that tough crowd and how well he played. He won't be shaken when he comes in here. He does a great job at managing their offense. He is also not afraid to pull the ball down and run with it. With (Gary) Nova, we could keep him in the pocket. The thing that Bortles has is great pocket presence."
The other thing Bortles has is the ability to stay on his feet. The Knights' offensive line has allowed only eight sacks all season, which will be a major test for the Louisville defense that has two of the nation's top sack artists in Lorenzo Mauldin and Marcus Smith.
With three sacks last week against Rutgers, Smith moved to ninth on the school's all-time sacks list with 15.5. Not bad for a player who started career taking snaps as a quarterback.
"No, I would never expect that," senior defensive end Marcus Smith said. "It's great to be in the top 10 in school history with the greats like Elvis Dumervil. I love that and it's something I definitely want to improve on in the next couple of games."
The Cardinals are in for a big test on both sides of the football, but the larger challenge will come from a UCF offense that can run the football and stretch the field with the vertical passing game.
"They are a complete team," senior safety Calvin Pryor said. "They are very balanced team, so we know we can't let up the big plays and must continue to play great defense. This is a great challenge for us and I'm looking forward to Friday night."
The Cardinals are facing one of the most complete teams on their schedule. The defense must continue to bring the pressure and make big plays. If they can continue to play great defense for the seventh-straight week, then the old adage will continue to holds its value within the Louisville football program.