Statistics never tell the full story in football, but for No. 17 Louisville, there are some key defensive numbers that must change in a hurry as the team prepares for its final non-conference matchup of the season at Southern Mississippi on Saturday night. Through four games this season, the Cardinals have managed just two interceptions and only four sacks. Some of that can be attributed to the types of offenses and play-calling Louisville has faced, but that explanation doesn’t cut it with head coach Charlie Strong.
“If you look at us on defense, because of the teams we’ve played with the spread offenses, we have been in the backfield, but we haven’t finished with the sacks,” said Strong. “The tackles for loss plays aren’t showing up right now in the defensive stats, and that’s what you would like to see is getting the tackles for loss and sacks and getting off the field on third downs. They’re completing some balls that we have to challenge. We have to challenge routes more.”
Against the run, the Cardinals have been up to the task ranking 16th nationally and third in the BIG EAST this season allowing opponents to an average of 91.75 yards per game and 3.6 yards per carry. However, the numbers do back up Strong’s assertion that Louisville hasn’t produced results with its pressure as the Cardinals rank 101st in the nation in sacks with only four and are 117th in tackles for loss with just 12. The players know their chances at making plays have been limited because of the offensive styles they have faced, but they also know it’s up to them to do more.
“We’ve been playing a lot of three-step teams. They’ve been getting the ball out hot,” said junior linebacker Preston Brown. “Linebackers are a part of that too. We blitz and we haven’t got enough pressure either, so we all have together as a whole and get some sacks.”
Despite the good numbers against the run this season, the Cardinals did allow a season-high 128 yards rushing to FIU in the 28-21 win over the Panthers last Saturday night in Miami. And though the total offensive yardage for FIU was the second lowest given up by Louisville in its four games, the defense and the entire squad lacked the energy, speed and emotion that is expected. According to coaches and players, it started with bad practice habits last week, but that seems to have been addressed this week.
“Practice was slow last week. We weren’t really flying around. No one really had a lot of energy,” Brown explained to reporters on Wednesday. “You can see we’re coming out with a lot more energy and fire (this week). Everybody is hitting more. We’re basically tackling now, so we’re having a lot more fun.”
The verdict on whether or not this week’s practice sessions translate to a better performance will come on Saturday night in Hattiesburg when the Cardinals will face a Southern Miss offense which has rushed for more yards (146.3 per game) than it has gained through the air (136.3) during its 0-3 start. The Golden Eagles have been hampered by injuries at quarterback this season as both junior Chris Campbell and freshman Anthony Alford were hurt and left the game in last week’s loss to Western Kentucky. If they can’t go this week, redshirt freshman Ricky Lloyd will likely make his first start of the season against Louisville. Whoever takes the snaps on Saturday will be surrounded by some talented playmakers, most notably wide receiver and kick returner Tracy Lampley and running back Desmond Johnson.
“They’re basically running the same thing they did when we played them in the bowl game (in 2010),” said Brown. “They have the same playmakers – No. 1 (Tracy Lampley) and No. 7 (Desmond Johnson) – so they’ll do the same type of stuff, try to get you in space and make you miss. We just have to swarm the ball and hopefully we can contain that.”