After a pair of solid performances to open the season and a terrific first half against North Carolina last week, the defensive unit for 18th-ranked Louisville struggled in the final 30 minutes with the Tar Heels allowing 27 points down the stretch. Entering this week’s road matchup at FIU, the Cardinals are looking to limit the big plays, which led to most of UNC’s scoring chances in Louisville’s 39-34 win.
“You look at Kentucky, we gave up one play of 22 yards when they threw it 51 times and scored 14 points,” said U of L defensive coordinator Vance Bedford. “You look at Missouri State and they had one big play and scored seven points. We gave up four big plays in the last game and we gave up four touchdowns. If we can cut down on the big plays, our chances of winning will continue to improve, especially if our offense keeps rolling like it’s rolling.”
Along with limiting the number of big plays by their opponents, the Cardinals are also looking for more game-changing moments of their own on defense. Through three games this season, the Louisville defense has just three sacks and two interceptions, well below what Bedford and the Cardinals are looking for.
“We need to make more plays,” said Bedford. “We need to get more tackles for loss and more quarterback sacks and more interceptions, but right now, being 3-0, I’m excited. We’ve limited people to what they’re doing with seven points in a game and 14 points in another game. Even at the end of the game last weekend, the defense had to go out there and win the game after a sudden change and they won the game. We have a long way to go and I mean a long way. We have a lot of improvements to make. If we can continue to hit those strides, I think we have a chance to be pretty decent this year.”
Two of the top playmakers for the Cardinals’ defense are safeties Calvin Pryor and Hakeem Smith, the team’s leading tacklers through the first three games. Pryor leads Louisville with 23 tackles to go with three forced fumbles and one interception, while Smith is next on the team with 19 tackles in addition to one forced fumble. The chemistry and communication between Pryor and Smith has led to great results so far this season.
“They communicate. They move around. They disguise and they talk. Right now, both of those guys are playing extremely well,” said Bedford. “They’re doing a lot of good things. Hakeem’s in his third year as a starter and Calvin started four games last year but looks like he’s been starting for two years. We’re really excited about their progress right now and hopefully, you’ll continue to see some good things.”
Defending FIU’s offense on Saturday night will be another good challenge for the Cardinals. Last season, a pair of long touchdown passes to speedy T.Y. Hilton made the difference as the Panthers walked into Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium and earned a 24-17 win over Louisville. FIU again has talented offensive weapons this season, including receiver Wayne Times, but Hilton is now making his impact in professional football and won’t be a factor in Saturday’s rematch.
“I’m thrilled to death,” said Bedford when asked if he’s happy to know T.Y. Hilton is no longer playing for FIU. “He’s starting in the National Football League as far as I know, so that tells you how good he was. They still have some good players. (Wayne) Times is the T.Y. Hilton for them this year. He is playing really well. I’m concerned about him and tackling him in space. He is a very shifty guy if he catches the ball.”
The Panthers (1-2) have averaged 29.0 points per contest while gaining 420 yards of total offense per outing through their first three games. Quarterback Jake Medlock has thrown for 711 yards (237.0 per game) on 59-of-103 passing with four touchdowns and no interceptions while leading FIU’s no-huddle attack. It will mark the fourth straight week the Cardinals have faced a no-huddle offense. Thanks to the high number of reps so far this season against the no-huddle, the Cardinals feel more prepared than ever to see it again on Saturday night.
“They’re a no-huddle team and that’s the new thing right now,” said Bedford. “We’ve adjusted to it and we’re playing better. We’re going to see a lot of no-huddle this year. We have to get ready for it and we have to play smart.”