After three straight wins at home, the No. 9 Cardinals return to the road in pursuit of their 10th consecutive win overall when they face Syracuse on Saturday at noon ET at the Carrier Dome in a regionally televised game on ABC. Following last Saturday’s win over Temple, Louisville (9-0, 4-0) remains the only unbeaten BIG EAST Conference team and one of just six undefeated teams left in the nation. Syracuse, directed by fourth year head coach Doug Marrone, is 4-5 overall and 3-2 in league games entering this week’s game. UofL owns a three-game winning streak in the series, including a 28-20 victory in the Cardinals last visit to the Carrier Dome in 2010 during head coach Charlie Strong’s first season in Louisville. However, Strong and the Cardinals know this week’s game won’t be easy.
“This is a big game this week against Syracuse. It is a road game, and anytime we go on the road, we know we have to pack our defense, our special teams, and our discipline,” noted Strong during his weekly press conference on Monday afternoon. “I think back to this game a year ago, when West Virginia went into Syracuse and West Virginia was ranked and Syracuse played extremely well. What we cannot do is lose our focus and we have to continue to execute and continue to get better. This is a very competitive league and this is going to be an exciting matchup and we have to make sure we get our players ready to go play.”
With nine games in the books, both squads have an agenda and a plan for success. Offensively, Syracuse is directed by senior quarterback Ryan Nassib, who is averaging more than 308 yards passing per game and has 18 touchdown passes against eight interceptions while completing more than 63 percent of his throws (226-of-357). His top target is senior receiver Marcus Sales (50 catches, 722 yards, 7 TD), while their top rusher is junior Jerome Smith, who is averaging just under 5.0 yards per carry and has 731 yards rushing on 146 attempts (81.2 yards per game) with one touchdown. Defensively, senior linebacker Siriki Diabate leads the Orange with 58 tackles, while senior defensive end Brandon Sharpe has a team-high 12.5 tackles for loss, including 5.5 sacks.
“They are very balanced. They have a very good quarterback and they do a really good job of running and throwing the football,” Strong said. “A lot of times people look at them and think they throw the ball a lot, but the reason why they had to throw the ball is because they were coming from behind. They want to establish the run and that is to the philosophy of their head coach because he is an offensive line coach. They want to be hard-nosed. On defense, they bring a lot of pressure. You know they are going to blitz you, put the pressure on the quarterback and see if they can hit him.”
Cardinals Enter Lap Two of Their Four-Lap Race to the Finish
Having set a new record for the best start to a season in school history, it could be tempting for the Cardinals to relax and enjoy their record-setting accomplishment. However, the goals for the Louisville program are much greater than just nine straight wins. Knowing his squad was entering a pivotal stretch in a potentially special season prior to last week’s game with Temple, Strong told his team that the final four games were similar to a four-lap race to the finish line. With a successful lap one in the books against Temple, Strong believes his team understands the importance of lap two at Syracuse.
“Every game carries a lot of weight and why I say this is a big game is you have four games left (starting last week); we have four laps left to go starting with Temple,” explained Strong. “Now, here comes our second lap with Syracuse, so we have to make sure we go finish. It is a big game; it is a road game for us. We have been at home the last three weeks, so now we have to go take our game on the road. It is going to be a good test for us. It is a team that is sitting there that needs to become bowl eligible. They have to go win to become bowl eligible and here we are still trying to make sure that we can continue to play well and continue to get better.”
Louisville’s Focus on the Orange, Not the BCS
With the unveiling of the latest BCS standings on Sunday night, the Cardinals moved up one position to No. 9 overall. However, it was noted during Monday’s press conference that unbeaten Louisville is ranked behind a pair of two-loss teams from the SEC (LSU, South Carolina). When asked for his reaction to where the Cardinals are ranked this week, Strong made it clear where Louisville’s focus will be this week.
“The way I look at it is, we do not control that and have nothing to do with it,” said Strong of the BCS standings. “The only thing our team can do for the rest of this year is just continue to play well and just go play it out. And I said, at the end of the season, you guys will see where you end up. You cannot – we cannot worry about that. Our focus right now has to be Syracuse.”
Bridgewater a Different Player in Year Two
Following an impressive freshman season that included passing for 2,129 yards with 14 touchdowns (with 12 interceptions) and completing more than 64 percent of his passes, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater knew he still had plenty of work to do in order to be the quarterback he wanted to be. That work began in the offseason and continued into fall camp. The results have been impressive as the south Florida native has already thrown for 2,434 yards with 18 touchdowns (to just four interceptions) while completing more than 70 percent of his throws. However, the gains for Bridgewater from year one to year two go far beyond the stat sheet.
“Well, he’s a totally different player than what he was a year ago. He’s doing everything that you want your quarterback to do,” said Cardinals’ offensive coordinator Shawn Watson during Monday’s press conference. “He’s managing our football team. He’s managing situational football, which a year ago, he didn’t do. He played, but he didn’t manage the game the way he’s managing it now. Those are situational things like red-zone football, two-minute, third-down, nickel downs – he does all of those things now like a pro. The thing that he’s also doing that’s different from a year ago is using the whole offense. If you look at the distribution of the football, we’re getting the ball thrown to just about every position on the team. That has a lot to do with Teddy understanding the entire offense. He knows how to use every piece of it. Probably the area that he’s really grown a lot in is his managing the pocket. He’s been able to limit sacks with his ability to use his check-down and use his system as well as get outside the pocket and make some plays. He’s just grown leaps and bounds. We did a winter scheme evaluation in February of last year. There were some definite places that he needed to grow and it was only logical that he did because he was a freshman. He really embraced everything I asked him to do and he put in the time. And, he’s found his way into being, what I think is a great quarterback.”