I couldn't decide which Louisville blog to do our usual pregame Q&A with, so I sent the same set of questions to a couple different blogs to see what we got back. First up this week to talk about USF-Louisville is Mark Ennis at The Collision Course, which is named after Howard Schnellenberger's statement upon arriving at Louisville that "The University of Louisville is on a collision course with the national championship. The only variable is time."
1. Did you expect Louisville to be this far along in Charlie Strong's first year? What in your mind is the biggest thing he has achieved so far?
Mark: No, I didn't expect Louisville to be 5-4, and I certainly didn't expect the team to look so drastically different this quickly. Coming into the season, I felt that the team would be improved, and the improvement would be obvious to everyone, but I didn't think it would necessarily translate to wins. Thankfully, however, there are some wins to show for it.
I think the biggest thing the coaches have accomplished is identifying what the personnel they have is best at, and adapting their play-calling to it. When Mike Sanford was named offensive coordinator and we learned that Kenny Carter was coming from the Florida staff as well, most of us here thought we'd be seeing some type of Utah/Florida spread option style offense. However, to the credit of the coaches, they quickly identified that there were a bunch of good running backs led by Bilal Powell, and a big, veteran offensive line, and decided that they would tailor the offense to them. Needless to say it's been effective.
2. Are Adam Froman or Bilal Powell expected back this Saturday? How did the Cardinals beat Syracuse without them?
Mark: Froman has a deep, deep thigh bruise that I believe will keep him out of the game. Bilal Powell returned to practice for the first time today (Wednesday), so I think there's a 50/50 chance that he will play against USF. The word is he has a pretty painful knee bruise that has slowly started to come down from the swelling. He might be limited from the explosive guy we saw earlier this season, but anything from him will help.
Louisville won without him because running back is probably the deepest position on the team. Some had forgotten, but, redshirt freshman Jeremy Wright was essentially running 1b with Powell at running back in the spring before he had to have surgery for a sports hernia. It took him a long time to come all the way back, but once he did about three weeks ago, he's been a nice addition to the running back rotation. Against Syracuse, the Cardinals rotated Jeremy Wright, Blayne Donnell, and Victor Anderson and ended up rushing for 160 yards as a team against a Syracuse defense that was only allowing 119 yards per game on the ground. The running game controlled the clock, and the ball, and allowed the improving defense to blitz Nassib like crazy. The Syracuse game was the third straight game that Louisville has allowed fewer than 300 yards of total offense.
3. Admittedly I should have watched last week's game to try and scout Louisville, but I couldn't tear myself away from the Illinois-Michigan score-a-thon. I have a pretty good idea of what you do on offense, but how has the defense changed with Strong basically running the show?
Mark: The defense was very timid and vanilla last season. Under Charlie Strong and Vance Bedford, you could safely describe the Louisville defense as a blitzfest. The weakness of the defense is the size of the front seven. There's just not that many big linemen or linebackers on the roster. Since they really don't get a tremendous amount of pressure on their own, the defensive coaches have a lot of confidence in a young secondary, and have turned the defense loose. Against Syracuse, after Nassib threw a 49 yard touchdown pass, Strong told reporters that he instructed Bedford to "Screw it, blitz every down." And thats what they did. It's funny because Strong basically admits that while he likes to take chances, it's Bedford that's really itching to bring the pressure. You can almost tell in any given game which coach is getting his way by how ferocious the blitz packages are.
4. You all have so many new and unfamiliar faces that I really don't know who else to keep an eye on. Who are some of the other standouts?
Mark: Well, Bilal Powell is the obvious one. He's leading the Big East in rushing, is fifth in the nation in rushing, has gone over 200 yards rushing twice already, and, if completely healthy, is a true homerun threat. If Powell can't go, watch that trio of running backs Donnell/Wright/Anderson, as well as tight ends Cameron Graham and Josh Chichester. The only real big play threat at receiver is Josh Bellamy, and he's a little banged up right now too. Defensively, linebacker Brandon Heath and cornerback Johnny Patrick really anchor the defense. Patrick's man to man coverage skills basically allow the Cardinals to blitz linebackers and other defensive backs and add that pressure that the defensive line just doesn't get on its own. Heath is smallish, but very fast, and is likely the guy tasked with spying B.J. Daniels.
5. OK, prediction time. What do you think will happen on Saturday? Any potential X-factors looming?
Mark: I believe that the Kragthorpian curse that has lingered over the corner of Central and Floyd will end on Saturday. I happen to think that Skip Holtz and Charlie Strong are the best two coaches in the Big East, and that this game will be one of the premier games in the future of the league. So I think this will be a fantastic football game. That being said, I think Louisville, especially if Bilal Powell is anywhere close to full speed, will have some success running the ball and will win a low scoring game. I don't think any of the South Florida receivers really terrify the defensive coaches, so, similar to Syracuse, I fully expect to see exotic and aggressive blitz packages aimed at keeping Daniels in the pocket and forcing him to beat them throwing the ball. I think Louisville wins a close one, something like 20-16 and gets bowl eligible.
BONUS QUESTION: What's with Louisville and fast food? KFC, Pizza Hut, Papa John's, Taco Bell... I mean, you all have actual restaurants, right?
Mark: Haha, great question! The reason for the fast food stuff is both YUM! (which owns KFC, Pizza Hut, Long John Silvers) and Papa John's have their corporate headquarters here in the city. It's good publicity for both of them to be heavily invested in the school's athletic programs. However, if we ever have to play in the "Double-Down Indoor Arena" I might have to pick a new team.
Now that I think about it, we shouldn't really be ragging on another city's chain restaurants. After all, Tampa Bay did give the world Outback and Hooters, both of whom have been long-time supporters of USF athletics.
Thanks again to Mark, and if we have another installment of Bulls Recon this week we'll have it for you before kickoff on Saturday.