Ninth-ranked Louisville enters its final three-game stretch of the season with a road matchup against Syracuse on Saturday at noon at the Carrier Dome (ABC). Riding a school record nine-game winning streak, the Cardinals are looking to get a step closer to the program’s fourth BIG EAST title in eight seasons and their second BCS bowl berth. On the other side, Syracuse enters the weekend following an 11-point loss at Cincinnati last week and the Orange needs two wins in their final three games to earn bowl eligibility for the second time in the last three seasons.
Syracuse Finds Passing Lanes Off Run Threat
The Syracuse offense is led by senior quarterback Ryan Nassib, who ranks in the top 15 nationally in completions per game (25.1, 12th), passing yards (2,773, 11th), passing yards per game (308.1, 11th) and total offense (318.3 ypg, 11th). He is the Orange career leader and ranks second all-time in the BIG EAST in completions with 723 while also ranking second in school history and fifth all-time in the BIG EAST in touchdown passes (62). Despite those impressive statistics for the Syracuse signal-caller, the Orange offense likes to run the football and build from its rushing game.
“Their quarterback (Nassib) gets the ball out of his hands quickly and he has two outstanding receivers and a tight end that he looks for,” said Cardinals’ head coach Charlie Strong of the Syracuse offense. “In the USC game, they were down and they came back to make the game very competitive because of the way he threw the football. They do a very good job of throwing the ball, but I think they want to run first and then mix in the throws. A lot of times those receivers are open because of how well they run the football. Guys start trying to load the box to stop the run and there goes a quick slant. Those receivers are good enough to take it the distance.”
Watson Credits Players for Improved Offense
The Louisville offense has shown remarkable improvement this season from where it started and finished the 2011 season. Much of the credit goes to the Cardinals’ offensive coordinator Shawn Watson and the entire UofL coaching staff. However, Watson is quick to credit the Louisville players for their hard work, their commitment to the playbook and their willingness to take on any role that is asked of them as the key reasons for the Cardinals’ progress offensively in 2012.
“We’ve asked them to, number one, learn our system and know it to detail. We want our pass concepts and run blocking patterns to look like the drawings in the book. That is what we refer to as clean football,” said Louisville offensive coordinator Shawn Watson. “We played really well this past weekend. We have a lot of clean football. I just like the way they have grown. Everything we have asked them to do, they have responded to. They’ve been a remarkable group that way. I’m talking about every one of them. We have a saying here in this room that there are no free rides. We train our backup players to be starters. We’ve had some guys who have had to step up because of injuries. Then, we’ve had some guys who have evolved into roles when called upon. Jarrett Davis made a nice play this past weekend. That was an example of a guy who’s got his chance and gotten his role. We’ve had Nacho (Abraham Garcia) go in there and play tackle. We’ve had to move (Alex) Kupper all over the line to help ourselves with injuries. We’ve said we are going to relentlessly chase perfection and the guys have done that. Along the way, we are finding the way to some excellence. We’ve just got to keep grinding. The neatest thing about them is they are humble guys. We keep their feet on the ground because we coach them hard and good things have happened.”
Opening Kickoff Reiterates Need for Execution
During last week’s 45-17 victory over Temple, the Cardinals dominated the final three quarters of action and were impressive in doing so. However, the opening quarter was not the best 15 minutes of football for Louisville this season. In fact, the opening 12 seconds were as bad as could be expected as the Owls’ Matt Brown returned the opening kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown marking the first time an opponent had accomplished such a feat since at least 1978. That led the Louisville head coach to detail again what the Cardinals are doing wrong on their kick coverage, which has struggled throughout the season.
“Guys just have to get off blocks, keep the ball inside and in front of them and go make a tackle,” Strong explained this week. “The guy (last Saturday for Temple) ran down the field untouched. We have to defeat blocks and get off blocks. After that, we were able to run down there and make sure we made the tackles, but on the opening kickoff, we didn’t do a good job of it. The kickoff is the first play of defense, so I tell our defense starters, ‘how many of you want to be out there on the kickoff? You need to get out there so we can get the ball tackled.’ We have to make sure we get the right guys out there so we can get the ball covered.”
Playing with a Chip Can Keep Louisville Hungry
Though many fans may be upset with where the unbeaten Cardinals stand in the latest BCS standings, the UofL coaching staff is embracing Louisville’s position in the national rankings. After going three straight seasons without a bowl berth prior to Strong’s arrival in Louisville, he has guided the program to back-to-back post-season berths in each of his first two campaigns. However, those seasons didn’t come easy as the Cardinals overcame slow starts to eventually gain bowl eligibility deep into the month of November. Sitting at 9-0 and atop the BIG EAST standings in 2012, Strong would like to see his third Louisville team to stay and hungry for another big finish.
“What I like about us not getting as much publicity is that now it’s all about being disrespected,” said Strong. “Now, you can still play with a chip on your shoulder. With where the program has come in three years, I think we still need to play with a chip on our shoulder. What I would hate to see is all of sudden we’re No. 5 in the BCS and then our guys feel like ‘hey, we’re arrived.’ No, let’s just keep working and at the end, we will see where we are. Yeah, let’s play with a chip on our shoulder. We still have a lot to prove, so let’s go prove to everyone how good we are and how well we can play.”
Game Information: Louisville (9-0, 4-0) at Syracuse (4-5, 3-2)
When: Nov. 10, 2012 – Noon ET
Where: Carrier Dome (49,262), Syracuse, N.Y.
TV: ABC with Bob Wischusen (pxp), Danny Kannell (analyst) and Maria Taylor (sideline) covering the game
Radio: The Louisville Sports Radio Network with Paul Rogers (pxp), Joe Tronzo (analyst) and Doug Ormay (sideline) calling the action
Series Record: Louisville leads 6-5
In Syracuse: Louisville leads 3-2
Last Meeting: Louisville 27, Syracuse 10 – 2011 in Louisville, Ky.
Rankings: Louisville is ranked 9th in the latest BCS standings, 10th in this week’s USA Today coaches’ poll and 11th in the latest AP Top 25; Syracuse is unranked.