Pre-season Big East favorite Louisville continues its non-conference schedule and a three-game homestand when the Cardinals welcome in FCS opponent Missouri State to Papa John's Cardinal Stadium on Saturday.
Louisville is currently ranked 23rd in the country after a 32-14 romp over instate rival Kentucky on the Sunday of college football's opening weekend. The Cardinals are 11-14 now against Kentucky all-time, but 9-6 when opening the season against the Wildcats.
The Cardinals went 5-2 in league play last year, just 7-6 overall, but still tied for the Big East title and came into this season as the overwhelming favorite with former conference powerhouse West Virginia gone to the Big 12.
Fear is certainly not something Missouri State seems to have as the Bears take on yet another nationally ranked team in the FBS. In the season opener, MSU took on Kansas State, then ranked No. 22, and hung around in the first two quarters before eventually falling 51-9. The Bears also played a pair of ranked teams last season but lost both in blowout fashion with defeats against Arkansas (51-7) and Oregon (56-7).
This marks the first-ever meeting between these two teams on the gridiron.
In its season opener, Missouri State's offense was a bit bipolar with a strong first half followed by a miserable second. Although the Bears were unable to punch the ball into the end zone, the squad trailed just 9-6 at halftime after managing to gain 211 total yards. After the half, the Bears managed 207 yards but continued their inability to put points on the scoreboard.
Ashton Glaser went 22-for-44 passing, for 257 yards in the game and Dorian Buford caught seven passes for 114 yards as the standouts on offense for the Bears. The passing game was clearly the more successful phase of the game for the Bears, who had 323 yards through the air and averaged 12.4 yards per completion.
Like the offense, the defense played well in the first half and then watched it all fall apart after the break. The Bears held KSU to just nine points in the first half before a 42-point barrage in the final two quarters. Overall the Bears allowed 493 total yards, as KSU was a perfect 6-for-6 in the red zone. Nate Davis led the way for the unit, collecting a game-high 12 tackles, including a sack.
Long drives were the theme of the day for Louisville's offense in its win over Kentucky. The Cardinals had four different drives of at least 71 yards, including the squad's first series of the season which was a marathon 15-play, 99-yard drive that took up over eight minutes and ended in a one-yard scoring plunge from Jeremy Wright. Louisville then made sure to keep the animosity between the two bitter rivals high by successfully converting a two-point conversion to take an 8-0 lead.
Charlie Strong's squad was able to have sustained drives due to the success of his quarterback and the effectiveness of the running game. Sophomore Teddy Bridgewater opened some eyes during a strong freshmen campaign and built on that to begin 2012 by completing 19-of-21 passes, for 232 yards before being pulled in the second half. Strong explained afterward that Bridgewater was not injured but that he wanted to get backup Will Stein some reps. Bridgewater's completion percentage in the game (90.4) set a school record.
Bridgewater's efficiency set up the run, which accounted for 219 of the team's 466 total yards and all four touchdowns. Jeremy Wright and Senorise Perry were the tandem that powered the ground game. Wright scored three different times and finished with 105 yards, while Perry led the squad with 108 yards.
"You need two running backs, " Strong said going on to explain his strategy, "Just keep running those backs and lets just pound them, lets pound them. That's where you are going to win football games. You have to be able to move people everywhere around the football."
Where Strong has the most experience is on defense and although his squad allowed 373 total yards, up from the 327.9 ypg average of last season, the Cardinals made enough plays to limit Kentucky to just 14 points. A big reason for that was the ability to clamp down in the red zone, where they twice stopped the Wildcats from scoring with a fumble recovery and by stopping UK on fourth down.
Strong safety Hakeem Smith is arguably the most talented player on the defensive side of the ball for Louisville and he was just that on Sunday with a team-high 10 tackles and a forced fumble. As a unit, the Cardinals had six pass breakups in the game. Still Strong and his players feel there is room for improvement especially in terms of pressuring opposing signal callers.
"We never felt like we had control (and) we were not able to get pressure," Strong said.
The lack of pressure came from the quick passing that the Wildcats utilized all game, relying on their receivers to make plays.
"We were hoping they would go deep a few more times," Smith said, "The defensive line couldn't hit home because of the quick throws."