Photo courtesy of Louisville Athletics
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (Sports Network) - Led by the accurate arm of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, the No. 16 Louisville Cardinals will attempt to keep their perfect season alive in a Big East conference clash with the explosive Cincinnati Bearcats at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.
After a blazing start to the season, Cincinnati was cooled down last weekend in a 29-23 loss to instate foe Toledo. In a matchup of two prolific offenses, the Bearcats lost despite out-gaining the Rockets in total yards by a 478-355 margin. Cincinnati was 5-0 and ranked No. 21 in the top-25 entering the game but with the loss has dropped from the national rankings. This is only Cincinnati's second Big East game with the first a 34-10 rout of Pittsburgh in game one of the season.
Louisville has yet to take its foot off the gas this season with the Cardinals a perfect 7-0 entering play. Louisville has remained relatively still in the national rankings over the last few weeks and currently sits at No. 16 which is where it sat last week before rallying for a 27-25 win over South Florida. The 7-0 start is the best for the Cardinals since 2006. The Cardinals have also won four straight at home, the longest such streak under head coach Charlie Strong.
These former Conference USA opponents have met a total of 51 times with Cincinnati holding the edge with a 29-21-1 record against Louisville. Since the pair joined the Big East in 2005, Cincinnati has also been the more dominant team, though by a slim 4-3 margin. That includes wins in each of the last two seasons.
Normally one to downplay the importance of a single game, Strong has made it clear that this game is a crucial one for his team.
"We know this is a big game for us this week," Strong said. "We haven't been undefeated since I've been here. We haven't been in the conference race. We just talk about being a one-game season, and let's just continue to play. But this is a big game; it's a big game for the program."
Offense has come easily to Cincinnati this season with the Bearcats ranked at the top of the Big East in total yards (467.5 pg) and scoring offense (34.7 ppg). That type of offensive output was on display in the loss to Toledo with the team racking up 478 total yards, however a pair of interceptions and only two red zone trips kept the Bearcats from putting up more points.
A bulk of the blame for the offense's inability to score falls on Munchie Legaux. The Bearcat quarterback threw for 227 yards and a touchdown, but completed a season low 41.7 percent of his passes and was intercepted twice. On the season Legaux has not been extremely efficient in completing passes (53.3 percent) but he has racked up a solid total of 1,435 yards and 12 touchdowns to five interceptions.
Legaux is also an integral part of the Bearcat run game, ranking second on the team in rushing yards (264) and rushing touchdowns (three). He ran for 66 yards and a score against Toledo. George Winn (607 yards, 4 TDs) and Ralph David Abernathy (245 yards) have also been able to pick up yards on the ground. Abernathy had a season-high 98 yards against Toledo.
In terms of catching the ball there is no real standout for the Bearcats. Kenbrell Thompkins leads the team in receptions (18), while posting 276 yards and a score. Travis Kelce has risen in the ranks in recent weeks with 165 of his team-high 286 yards coming in the last two games.
Cincinnati's defense did its job against Toledo, holding the normally potent Rockets to 355 total yards and no offensive touchdowns.
"If you would have told me that our defense would hold the explosive Toledo offense scoreless in terms of touchdowns, I would feel pretty confident that we would win the game," Cincinnati head coach Butch Jones said.
Jones' squad has been rather adept in keeping teams off the scoreboard this season. Despite giving up a fair amount of total yards (352.7 pg) to opposing teams in part because of the pace its offense plays, the Bearcats have largely been able to limit opponents in scoring. Cincinnati is ranked second in the Big East in scoring defense (16.8 ppg).
Greg Blair is the team's leader in tackles (54) and the only player to have reached the 50-tackle mark at this point in the season. Blair has also collected a pair of interceptions and has a team-high five passes defended. The Bearcats took a big loss earlier this month though in losing Walter Stewart, who is out indefinitely. Stewart had team-highs in tackles for loss (7.0) and sacks (5.0).
Bridgewater has been the steady force for Louisville. The sophomore quarterback rarely seems to get rattled and thus far he has rarely made mistakes with the third-highest completion percentage in the nation (73.4). In the win over USF, Bridgewater led the Cardinals 75 yards in a little over a minute and a half before throwing the game-winning 11-yard touchdown pass to Eli Rogers with less than two minutes remaining.
"When USF scored, Teddy (Bridgewater) told me we were good," Strong said. "If we protect the quarterback, Teddy will make the throws. If you protect Teddy, he has enough progression where he is down the field and he is always moving."
That ability to go through his progressions is evident with a look at the Cardinals stat sheet, as eight different receivers have at least 11 catches this season. Leading receiver DeVante Parker (16 receptions, 337 yards) was slowed to just 18 yards against USF. So Bridgewater turned to Damian Copeland who caught a season-high five passes for 93 yards and a score.
On the season Bridgewater has thrown for 1,694 yards and 11 touchdowns with only three interceptions.
Passing is not all Bridgewater brings to the table as he can run when his passing lanes are clogged. His ability to take off with the ball was especially needed against USF as he had a team-high 74 yards on the ground with the normally potent combination of Senorise Perry and Jeremy Wright held to just 56 yards combined. Perry (588 yards, 10 TDs) and Wright (477 yards, 7 TDs) have been the most productive rushing tandem in the Big East this season even with the struggles against USF.
Louisville has not been an exceptionally productive defensive squad this season, ranking fourth in the Big East in both scoring (21.9 ppg) and total defense (339.0 ypg). The Cardinals have not been able to create a great deal of turnovers (10 total), while allowing teams to convert a conference-high 45.5 percent of their third down attempts.
Thus far that has not been a problem with how well the Cardinals dominate time of possession and limit other teams opportunities. Louisville leads the conference in the category with nearly 33 minutes of possession per game.
The strength of the defense is in the secondary where safety Calvin Pryor (54 tackles) and cornerback Hakeem Smith (39) rank first and third, respectively on the roster in tackles. The player to watch on the defensive line is Lorenzo Mauldin, who has a team-high 4.5 sacks.