The great Mike Rutherford at our sister site Card Chronicle was nice enough to answer the same questions we asked Mark Ennis from The Collision Course earlier this week. Mike has also announced he will be taking me to Tempe if The Big East Apocalypse actually works out and Louisville wins the Big East. So now I have a 25% chance of going.
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?
MR: No. I thought a successful season would be 5-7, and here we are with five wins and three games still left to play. What's been even more surprising is how close the losses have been. With the exception of the 20-3 loss at Pitt, Louisville has been beaten by no more than one score (rhyme) in each of its defeats.
In just 3/4 of a season, Strong has made Louisville football fun again. There's not a whole lot of talent on this team, but everyone who sees the field for Louisville plays with so much energy that their teammates and the crowd can't help but feed off of that. This team has shown heart, cohesiveness, competency and now confidence. These are all things that have been absent for the past three seasons.
MR: I think it's highly unlikely that Froman plays (ed. note: Froman is out for the USF game), and only slightly more likely (kind of rhyme) that Powell plays.
Backup quarterback Justin Burke is a very heady senior who made every big play he had to in order for U of L to win at the Carrier Dome last Saturday. He doesn't have a great arm and his lack of speed makes him far from the perfect for this spread offense, but he's a really smart kid who showed last week that he understands what it takes to win.
One of Louisville's biggest strengths is its depth at running back. Powell was supplanted last week by Vic Anderson (the 2008 Big East Rookie of the Year), redshirt freshman Jeremy Wright (a star in the making who is the reigning BE Offensive Player of the Week) and Blayne Donnell (a solid senior who stayed with the program through the Krag years).
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?
MR: We blitz...we blitz a lot. Syracuse threw a long touchdown pass on its second drive of the game, and afterward Strong reportedly told defensive coordinator Vance Bedford, "blitz on every play." We did, and it worked.
What's amazing is there is by no means more talent on this defense than any of the three Steve Kragthorpe had at his disposal, and yet Bedford's group has somehow managed to pitch two shutouts and not surrender 500+ yards to bottom-tier C-USA teams.
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?
MR: Besides the running backs we've already talked about, I'd keep an eye on tight end Cameron Graham, who is probably the best pro prospect on this team. Wide receiver Josh Bellamy has been inconsistent but is capable of making a big play. Senior wideout Doug Beaumont, when healthy, has been the team's most consistent performer, and he's also a threat to take a punt to the house. Keep an eye on freshman Dominique Brown. He's listed as a quarterback, but returned kicks last week and has also seen the field at wide receiver. He mostly works out of the Wildcat (he hasn't thrown the ball this season), but I'm told he's been lining up at a number of different positions this week. Take that for what it's worth.
On defense, Johnny Patrick is the lead corner and the guy most capable of making a big play. Freshman safety Hakeem Smith is super aggressive and has come out of nowhere to lead the team in tackles. Defensive end Rodney Gnat is the group's most effective pass rusher and, naturally, leads the team in sacks.
5. OK, prediction time. What do you think will happen on Saturday? Any potential X-factors looming?
MR: Neither team has ever won on the road in this series, so I'm going to stay safely away from the ledge and pick Louisville in a close one. If Kragthorpe can do it, surely Strong can do it.
The biggest X-factor - if you can even call it that - is how U of L handles B.J. Daniels. Athletic quarterbacks have given the Cardinals problems, and obviously his running ability puts a damper on the "blitz, blitz, blitz" philosophy. South Florida's QB play likely determines this game.
To conclude, I'll say: Cards, 27-21.
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?
MR: There's a Porcini joke to be made here, but I just don't have the heart to do it.
Thanks again to Mike for taking time to answer our questions, and please head over to CC if you need anything Louisville related. They've already sent everyone who has ever read their site to ours because of the Apocalypse piece.