We continue our Staring Down the Musket At... Q&A preview series this week with the Louisville blog Card Chronicle. After being a huge rival to WVU and reaching a BCS bowl under Bobby Petrino, the Louisville program took a huge step back under much-maligned head coach Steve Kragthorpe (you can read his latest diary entry here). Charlie Strong looks to have the Cardinals back on the winning track. He surprisingly led them to a win over Southern Miss in the Beef O'brady's Bowl last year, and has them sitting squarely at .500 now in his second year while starting a boatload of true freshmen, including blue-chip QB Teddy Bridgewater. While Bridgewater tries to adapt to the college game behind a young offensive line and with average skill players, Strong's team has unsurprisingly leaned to a stingy defense to keep Louisville in games and win the turnover battle. As one of only two teams not to have given up more than 25 points in a game this year (the other is Alabama), look for the Cards to try to limit WVU possessions and keep the score low. If WVU hits 30 points, it should escape with a win. Now, on to the questions:Country Roads: What should we make of Louisville this year? Early season losses to FIU and Marshall, then a couple strong showings resulting in wins against Rutgers and Syracuse in Big East play. Is this a case of a young team starting to come of age? Or are teams overlooking the Cardinals and allowing an underrated team to sneak up on them?
Card Chronicle: I think it's a mix of the young guys adjusting to the college game and some key players getting healthy. Louisville had a lot of linemen injured on both sides of the ball at the beginning of the year, including center Mario Benavides, a preseason Rimington Award candidate who was the only returning starter on the O-line. It's also worth noting that only seven true freshman in the country have started a game at O-line this season, and two of those guys are Cardinals.
When you look at the number of young guys Louisville has at key positions, it's remarkable. Obviously the quarterback's a freshman, but then you look on the line and three freshman have started there, two of the team's three leading rushers are sophomores, and three of the four leading receivers are freshmen. Also, U of L started seven freshmen on defense against Syracuse last week. With this being the case, improvement as the season has gone along shouldn't be that much of a surprise.
CR: Much has been made this week of the fact that Louisville and Alabama are the only two teams in the country not to have given up more than 25 points in a game this year. Those 25 points were to a pretty powerful Cincinnati offense. Is the defense for real? Or has it mostly benefitted from facing below-average offenses? Who are the main playmakers on that side of the ball.
CC: I'd say it's a combination. I don't think there's any doubt that Louisville has some next-level talent on the defensive side of the ball, but it also hasn't faced an offense outside of Cincinnati that's really capable of setting the world on fire.
U of L's strength on defense is up front and through the middle. Dexter Heyman is a senior middle linebacker who has played in each of his four seasons here, and just really started living up to expectations in the past few weeks. He's an extremely imposing figure and the unquestioned leader of the defense. Senior defensive end Greg Scruggs was supposed to be the unit's star, but he's battled injuries all season long and actually did not even dress last week for the first time in his college career. There's a chance he could play a limited amount on Saturday. Sophomore Marcus Smith, who came to U of L as a quarterback, has picked up the slack, notching five sacks over the past three games.
Sophomore linebacker Preston Brown is the other guy who's really played big recently, and is actually the reigning Big East defensive player of the week. Sophomore safety Hakeem Smith is the lone guy with any past experience in the secondary right now, but the unit has still played well above expectations up to this point. Smith was the Big East rookie of the year last season and was expected to team up with talented junior Shenard Holton at safety, but Holton has been held out of action for the past two games for unknown reasons. True freshman Calvin Pryor has filled in and played very well.
CR: To beat WVU, you're going to have to score. Is Teddy Bridgewater ready to put up more than 28 points on the road? Or is he going to have to get help from WVU turnovers and special teams play to help outscore the Mountaineers?
Since the offense has yet to register 28 points in a game this season, there's no way I can say they're poised to achieve that feat this week. Louisville has moved the ball effectively in all eight games, but for whatever reason everything seems to change once it gets inside the opponents' 35-yard-line.
While I do think the Cardinal offense is capable of moving the chains somewhat consistently against the Mountaineers, I don't think there's any way Louisville has a chance to win on Saturday if it doesn't get some help in the form of turnovers or big special teams plays.
CR: What's your take on all this conference realignment stuff? As a WVU fan, I'd love to see Louisville join the Big XII with us so our budding rivalry can continue. But given that the school returned tickets and may not be bringing its band or cheerleaders, I have to wonder how the lack of support looks to prospective new conferences. How confident are you that UL will end up in a major conference going forward?
CC: To be honest, I couldn't be more over it. It's brought out the worst of sports coverage in the Internet era. Everybody has something different to say every hour, and even though everyone knows the vast majority of it is shit, no one can look away. Worst of all it's been a massive distraction from the actual games being played on actual fields in front of actual fans.
I'm disappointed that Louisville ultimately wasn't invited to the Big 12, but to be perfectly honest I'm also thankful for the break from it all. Everyone around the U of L program seems pretty confident about its position moving forward, so I'm choosing to trust them and shift my focus back to football and basketball season.
CR: The current line is WVU -14 and the over/under is set at 51.5. Where's your money on this one?
CC: It's extremely intriguing that U of L has hit the line or been under in all its games this season, while West Virginia has hit the line or been over in all its games. If you put a gun to my head and forced me to choose, I'd take the under and the Mountaineers to cover.