Defense is U of L’s strength
MORGANTOWN - Think what you will about the Louisville football team that comes to Mountaineer Field Saturday. If you choose to look at the fact that the Cardinals are but 4-4 and that they lost games to Florida International and Marshall, so be it.
Know this, though: Louisville can play defense.
In eight games this season, no team has scored more than three touchdowns against the Cardinals. Six of the eight have scored two or fewer.
Louisville ranks No. 12 in the country in total defense and No. 11 in points allowed. The Cardinals are equally adept at stopping the run and the pass.
For a West Virginia team that seems lately reduced to outscoring teams in order to win, that presents a challenge.
"They're an attacking defense, but they're sound. It's hard to move the ball on them,'' West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said Monday. "It always starts up front. They've got D-linemen that are physical and their linebackers are enormous and cover a lot of space.
"They're young. They play a lot of freshman on both offense and defense. But that's scary because the more you play freshmen the better they're going to get.''
That's been exactly the case for Louisville.
Through six games, coach Charlie Strong's team was 2-4 and had those embarrassing home losses to Florida International (24-17) and Marshall (17-13). Since then, however, the Cardinals handed Rutgers its first Big East loss and then dismantled the same Syracuse team that had just dismantled West Virginia, winning 27-10.
While Louisville's offense certainly has something to do with that - Strong switched offensive coordinators and quarterbacks during the season - the defense has remained a constant. Only two teams have gained more than 300 yards against the Cardinals. Five have been held below 100 yards rushing and none have passed for more than 255.
West Virginia averages 127 rushing and 355 passing, so something has to give.
"It's so tough. Just from watching them it's going to be hard to do,'' Strong said of containing WVU's offense when the teams meet at noon Sunday. "[WVU quarterback] Geno Smith is an unbelievable player and he does a great job with the tempo and managing the game. He's getting the ball to [Stedman] Bailey and [Tavon] Austin and they're making the catches and getting downfield.''
Holgorsen has never faced a Strong-coached defense. West Virginia's first-year head coach was in the Southwest the past decade and in lower-division football before that while Strong was making a name for himself at Notre Dame, South Carolina and mainly at Florida. Strong made four different stops in Gainesville, including as defensive coordinator for the seven years prior to getting the job at Louisville in 2010.
Holgorsen knows Strong's reputation, though.
"Well, Coach Strong has been widely regarded as one of the better defensive coordinators in the country for the last two decades,'' Holgorsen said. "He's been at a lot of good places. I've never faced him, but have watched from afar when he was at Notre Dame and South Carolina and Florida and putting really good defenses out there. So it's not surprising he's doing the same thing at Louisville.
"You look at their players and their bodies look good to me. They're big and physical and they've got speed, as well. The scheme is good, they're well coached and they've got players. So it's not surprising to see them hold people to what they've been holding them to.''
Holgorsen wasn't around, but West Virginia's offense struggled last year with Louisville, gaining just 261 yards in 17-10 win. Even for a mediocre offense, that was the second-lowest total of the season. Only LSU held the Mountaineers to less.
"We are a pressure defense and our players understand that,'' Strong said. "It's all about disrupting the rhythm of an offense. If you can do that on defense then you'll be able to set the tempo. We like to set the tempo of the game with our defense, and that comes from just stopping the run and eliminating the big plays.''
The one thing Louisville's defense hasn't faced yet, though, is a top-flight passing offense. The highest-rated quarterback (in terms of passing yards) the Cardinals have defended was North Carolina first-year starter Bryn Renner, and he completed a modest 12-of-18 passes for 178 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions.
That's usually not even one half of a game's work for Smith.
"He is a problem himself because he does a good job of throwing the ball and his feet get him out of trouble,'' Strong said. "Any time pressure comes he has good enough feet where he can outrun you and get outside with the football. And then he can either take it downfield and run it himself or he can throw it downfield.''
For the second time this season, ESPN has exercised a six-day window on the decision, which means the network (ABC, ESPN or ESPN2) and the start time won't come until at least late Saturday night or Sunday.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org.