With just two games left in the regular season, the No. 19 Louisville Cardinals will try to keep pace at the top of the Big East standings when the Connecticut Huskies come to Papa John's Cardinal Stadium on Saturday.
Connecticut has no such lofty expectations entering its final two games, but the Huskies can still earn a bowl bid with two wins. Connecticut may have saved its season with a 24-17 win last week against Pittsburgh that came after a four-game losing streak.
As for the Louisville, the Cardinals have had two weeks to recover from their first loss of the season, a 45-26 rout against Syracuse in the Carrier Dome.
"You 're looking at a football team that is still 9-1," head coach Charlie Strong said about his team's mentality after that first loss. "What we wanted to do in the bye week is get that game is behind us. The Syracuse game is behind us. Get that game away and then just focus on the next two. Just focus on ourselves and making ourselves and this football team better."
With the loss Louisville fell out of a first-place tie with Rutgers for the top spot in the Big East with a mark of 4-1. Louisville will play Rutgers in the season finale but needs to win in this game to have a chance at the Big East title.
With a 34-20 win at Rentschler Field last season, the Cardinals have won each of the last two games with the Huskies and now control the series, 5-3.
If the Huskies need a reason for why the season has had such mixed results they need to look no further than their offensive production. On the season Connecticut is the lowest scoring team in the Big East (17.3 ppg), while managing only 320.6 ypg.
Surprisingly the real weakness has been the running game with the Huskies managing only 87.0 yards per game on the ground. That type of effort is shocking since Lyle McCombs, who rushed for 1,151 yards last season as a redshirt freshman, has been bottled up this season with only 667 yards and five touchdowns on 193 carries.
Juco transfer quarterback Chandler Whitmer has thus produced a great deal of the team's yardage totals through the air. Whitmer has thrown for 2,328 yards this season but has been far from efficient. He has been picked off 14 times and completed just 59.9 percent of his pass attempts. Whitmer has been under a great deal of pressure most of the season and has taken 28 sacks. In fact, Whitmer hasn't gone a game without a sack since week one against UMass.
An erratic passing game has led to inconsistent production from Connecticut's receivers. Geremy Davis (37 receptions, 556 yards) is the top option but Davis has had a roller coaster of production. He has five games of at least 78 yards receiving but also has a pair of games with less than 10. Tight end Ryan Griffin (26 receptions, 399 yards, 5 TDs) has been a security blanket especially in the red zone.
The only thing keeping Connecticut in the hunt for the postseason is its defense. In a conference that has some powerful squads, especially Rutgers, Connecticut is actually the top rated team in total defense (296.2 ypg). In fact the Huskies are the only team holding foes to less than 300 yards of total offense in the conference. It is difficult to pick up yards when being forced into negative plays, which is exactly what Connecticut has done in racking up the second most tackles for loss (70) and most sacks (26) in the Big East.
The punishing front seven is led by Yawin Smallwood who has amassed 100 tackles, including 13.0 for loss and 4.0 sacks. Also terrorizing opposing backfields is Sio More (64 tackles, 13.0 TFLs, 7.0 sacks) and Trevardo Williams (10.0 TFLs, 8.5 sacks).
Louisville has a large advantage on the offensive side of the ball. The Cardinals are the third most productive offense in the Big East (434.3 ypg) while leading the league in scoring (33.2).
The Cardinals will be having to deal without a major contributor though, as lead rusher Senorise Perry (705 yards, 11 TDs) is out for the remainder of the season with a leg injury. While that would be detrimental to most other teams, the Cardinals may actually be able to weather the storm, as Jeremy Wright (680 yards, 9 TDs) has also been a productive back and actually leads the squad in carries. Strong has indicated that Corvin Lamb could get some carries but that Wright will get the bulk of the carries.
"We'll go with Jeremy just because he has the experience and he is going to play as much as he can," Strong said.
Under center Teddy Bridgewater has been phenomenal for the Cardinals. The sophomore has completed a Big East leading 70.9 percent of his pass attempts this season for 2,858 yards and 21 touchdowns while being picked off only five times. Bridgewater has consistently come through in the clutch and may be in even more passing situations with Perry out.
Bridgewater doesn't just complete passes at a high percentage he also spreads the ball around. Ten different players have at least 10 receptions on the season with five of those having more than 20. DeVante Parker (27 receptions, 592 yards, 6 TDs) has been an explosive deep threat while Daniel Copeland (37 receptions, 444 yards, TD) and Eli Rogers (31 receptions, 315 yards, 4 TDs) are the more commonly targeted options.
Louisville doesn't have as punishing a defensive unit as Connecticut but has certainly held its own on that side of the ball. The Cardinals are the third best team in terms of total defense (355.9 ypg). Louisville is also the more disciplined team with its +7 turnover differential superior to Connecticut's -12.
Preston Brown (80 tackles) and Calvin Pryor (76 tackles) are the lead stoppers on the squad, while Lorenzo Mauldin (4.5 sacks) has provided the best option in the pass rush on a Louisville team that has not created much pressure.