Opponent: North Carolina Tar Heels
Record: 1-1 (Beat Elon 62-0, lost to Wake Forest 28-27)
Head Coach: Larry Fedora; 1st season
Game Time: 3:30 p.m.
TV / Radio: ABC HD (regional) and WHAS 84 Radio
Broadcasters: Bob Wischusen, Danny Kannell (TV) and Paul Rogers, Joe Tronzo (Radio)
All Time Series: Tied 3-3
Spread: Louisville -3
Saturday afternoon at 3:30 p.m., the University of Louisville football team has the opportunity to make a huge statement on a national stage. The Cardinals (2-0) will host the North Carolina Tar Heels (1-1) at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium in what could arguably be called the biggest home game since 2006. Some have suggested that a loss wouldn’t really hurt the Cards since they could still dominate the Big East and secure a BCS bid. But there’s much more at stake here. After losing Notre Dame this week to the ACC, the Big East is on even more unstable ground (if that’s even possible) than it was in previous months. At this point the Louisville administration and athletics department have to be looking to aggressively make a move to secure Louisville a home in another conference. Winning the league and going to a BCS game will certainly help, but from a perception standpoint (nationally speaking) a win here would be huge. Charlie Strong can not afford to lose any more games (especially ones in which his team is favored and playing at home) to less-talented non-conference foes. No disrespect to UNC, but there’s a reason why Louisville is favored in this game. They’re currently ranked 19th in the nation, and it’s essential that they get this win and prove any doubters wrong. A loss would simply be yet another blemish on an already-shaky non-conference record over the last three years ( 6-6 total: 2-4 last year against non Big East teams and 4-2 in 2010, counting bowls). If this team is truly ready to make the next step in this long journey of bringing the program back to prominence, it’s vital that there are no letdowns tomorrow and that the team executes and takes care of business.
North Carolina is fresh off a heartbreaking 28-27 loss on the road to Wake Forest last week, though their QB Bryn Renner took a violent shot to the head and missed part of the game and they were without star running back Giovanni Bernard. Both players are expected to play tomorrow and they’ll be the focal point of UNC’s spread, no-huddle offense. In fact, this will mark the third straight week where Vance Bedford’s defense will have faced some semblance of a no-huddle, hurry-up offense. The Cards weren’t able to get much penetration from their defensive line two weeks ago against UK and the Cats amassed 466 yards of total offense. If it weren’t for a couple of redzone turnovers, who knows how that game ends. Last week the line got better penetration and were able to disrupt Missouri State QB Ashton Glaser and he ended up with just 150 passing yards (and just 249 total yards). While it’s difficult to sustain a consistent pass rush against no-huddle offenses, the Cards have done an outstanding job against the run as they’ve yet to allow either of their first two opponents to gain more than 100 yards on the ground. This week, a more balanced UNC offense will test both phases of the UofL defense. Renner has been efficient in both of the Tar Heels’ first two games, throwing for 271 yards last week and 236 the week before, in limited action. UNC’s stable of running backs have totaled 400 yards in the first two games, so the balance is definitely a concern. It’ll be difficult, once again, for the Louisville defensive line to get penetration between an enormous and talented offensive line (avg height of 6’5 and avg weight of 318 lbs) and the fact that Renner will look to get rid of the ball quickly. It’ll be fascinating to see if Bedford stays back in a zone and tries to let his linebackers and safeties make more of the plays. The Cards have definitely been conservative at times, defensively, this season and their bend-but-don’t break philosophy has worked thus far. With the biggest and most talented offensive line they’ll see all year, this is an enormous test for guys like Brandon Dunn, Roy Philon, Marcus Smith and Lorenzo Mauldin. Not to mention the linebacking corps. Preston Brown has been pretty quiet over the first two games but tomorrow the Cards will need a big effort in the middle.
On the other side, Louisville has been pretty balanced themselves when it comes to their offensive scheme. In their first game against Kentucky, they only threw the ball 21 times and pummeled the Cats with a physical running game (219 yards). But last week they flipped the script and ended up throwing the ball 39 times (344 yards) on Missouri State. It’s clear that, for the first time in Strong’s tenure, the Cards have a multifaceted, diverse offense. North Carolina had two players from last year’s stingy defense selected in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft (Quentin Coples – 16th overall, Zach Brown – 52nd overall) so this is a bit of a different look for the Tar Heels. This year’s defense is still ranked among the top 30 in the nation, so they’re more than capable of making plays. But this isn’t the same Louisville team that came into Chapel Hill last year and lost 14-7. That was the game in which Shawn Watson was elevated to offensive coordinator, it was just Teddy Bridgewater’s second career start and the offensive line was in flux with a series of injuries and newly added true freshmen. It’s safe to say that this Louisville offense has come a long way since then. Now Bridgewater is among the nation’s most efficient QB’s, Watson is settling into his role as the team’s play-caller and the offensive line has become a strength of the team. It was announced last night that RB Dominique Brown will not play, so it’s up to the trio of Jeremy Wright, Corvin Lamb and Senorise Perry to continue to carry the load. Bridgewater will look to spread out the UNC defense like he has in both of the previous games, hitting a total of 12 different receivers combined. UNC’s leading tackler is junior safety Tre Boston, who’s been sensational for the Tar Heels these past two weeks. Preseason All-American middle linebacker Kevin Reddick is another one to watch as he racked up 9 tackles last week against Wake Forest. They’ve also gotten nice pressure up front from defensive tackle Sylvester Williams, who’s already totaled 2.5 sacks in this young season. Overall, North Carolina is a big-play team on defense. The Tar Heels are tied for sixth in FBS statistics in tackles-for-losses with a 10.0 average (20 in two games). Aside from that 93 yard game-winning-drive last week against Wake, this defense has been very solid.
One thing that’s been over-looked so far by most fans is the fact that North Carolina comes in very banged up. And not just Renner and Bernard. Their Wide Receivers have been decimated by injuries, including three of their top four according to the preseason depth chart. First they lost sophomore TJ Thorpe to a broken leg, then they dismissed junior Todd Harrelson and now Reggie Wilkins is listed as doubtful tomorrow. This could be a big opportunity for Louisville’s secondary to be physical against an unproven unit. Looking at the special teams units for both teams, it’s clear that UNC has a big-time advantage. The Tar Heels are averaging a league-best 42.0 yards on net punting and they are second in punt return average (24.0). Sophomore P Tommy Hibbard is averaging 44.4 yards per attempt, which is second in the league. On field goals, senior Casey Barth is 4-of-4 and 11-of-11 on extra points. Louisville, conversely, has been disastrous in virtually every phase of special teams aside from actual field goals made where the duo of John Wallace and Matt Nakatani are a combined 3-3 on the season. Louisville has to get better decision-making from their punt returners who currently have a whopping -7 yards on the season – with two fumbles. It’s the one true weakness of this team and some drastic measures need to be taken in order to rectify the situation.
Bottom line: I have a hard time seeing UNC stopping the Louisville offense. On a nationally televised game against a solid opponent, all the stops have to be pulled out. New offensive wrinkles, maybe more zone blitzes and pressure defensively, whatever the case, I highly doubt you’ll see a vanilla effort from the Cards tomorrow. North Carolina should also be able to move the ball offensively, and I expect them to score their fair share of points. But in the end, if they settle for field goals and the Louisville defense comes with a solid, consistent effort, it’ll be tough to win on the road.
Louisville 28 North Carolina 17