For the first time this season, the Louisville defense will match-up with a more conventional offensive attack when the No. 16 Cardinals’ open BIG EAST Conference action at Pittsburgh on Saturday at Heinz Field. After seeing spread attacks and varying types of no-huddle offenses in the first five games, unbeaten Louisville will face-off against a look from the Panthers that will resemble what the Cardinals (5-0, 0-0) see in practice on a daily basis.
“Obviously, we’re not going to be in as much nickel stuff all the time as we were (in the first five games),” said Cardinals’ defensive line coach Clint Hurtt. “Seeing all of the two-back stuff and multiple tight end sets are looks our guys see from our offense every day. We do a lot of stuff (in practice) where we go good-on-good, so we’re not going to ever branch away far from seeing that. It’s not going to be that big of an adjustment, but the game plan is going to be a lot different.”
The Panthers’ offense is built around running the football first with those two-running back, multiple tight end looks. Senior Ray Graham, who missed the last four games of 2011 with a torn ACL, leads the way for Pittsburgh’s rushing trio with 419 yards on 89 carries and four touchdowns. He is backed up by sophomore Isaac Bennett (231 yards, 45 carries, one touchdown) and freshman Rushel Shell (127 yards, 26 carries, three touchdowns). The goal for the Panthers (2-3, 0-2) is to stay in command of the game by running the football effectively.
“They do such a good job of running the football. They have three really good backs, and Graham is working his way back in there,” Hurtt said following Wednesday’s practice session. “The biggest thing is being able to control the running game and not let them play ahead of the chains. A team like that, they want to grind and control the clock. They want to rest their defense. If they’re going to do that, you don’t want to have them in too many short yardage situations or third and mediums. That’s where they’ve been successful and what they’ve been able to do to people. It’s been a little bit tougher when they’ve gotten behind the sticks.”
Along with the talented stable of running backs, the Panthers also have a more than capable quarterback in senior Tino Sunseri. The three-year starter is 2-0 against the Cardinals and ranks fourth on Pittsburgh’s career passing yards list with 6,765. This season, he is averaging more than 292 yards through air while completing 69 percent (105-of-152) of his passes to go with eight touchdowns and just two interceptions.
“A guy that’s really been the key to it is Tino Sunseri,” said Hurtt. “He’s a senior quarterback and he’s improved dramatically. He has great command of the offense and he’s done a great job of throwing the football.”
Along with managing the Panthers’ rushing attack, Louisville would also like to see increased pressure on Sunseri in the passing game. In the Panthers’ 14-13 loss at Syracuse last week, the Orange sacked Sunseri five times to go with one interception. Conversely, the Cardinals have just two interceptions and only five sacks as their opponents have attempted 155 passes in five games.
“The biggest thing is finishing rushes and getting home,” Hurtt explained in relation to being more successful in pressuring the opposing quarterback. “That’s something we’ve been constantly working on to get done and we’re behind the eight ball in that. We’re doing a lot of things well, but that aspect for us has not been where we wanted it to be. You come out and work at it every day and we have to break out of this slump.”