LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Louisville's defense is creating more opportunities for quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and the Cardinals' high-powered offense to get on the field.
Seventh-ranked Louisville (3-0) enters Saturday's game against struggling Florida International (0-3) ranked fifth nationally in third-down defense, having allowed just 10 of 41 conversions (24. That's a huge drop from a year ago when opponents converted 17 of 37 chances (46%).
The Cardinals completely shut down Kentucky on third down. The Wildcats were 0 for 13 Saturday, tying the second-best effort ever by a Louisville defense. Duke was 0-for-15 on third down against the Cardinals in in 2002.
Louisville's proficiency on what defensive players call the "money down" could improve against the Panthers, who have made just 23% of their third-down chances.
"That's a big emphasis, to get the offense back on the field and keep the momentum going," Cardinals senior middle linebacker Preston Brown said of the third-down philosophy.
"Ever since I've been here, we've always called third down the 'money down' because it's the big-money down to get off the field."
The Cardinals' aggressive approach began paying off late last season after Syracuse converted 14 of 19 third-down chances in a 45-26 victory that ended Louisville's quest for an unbeaten season. An overtime loss to Connecticut followed but Louisville began a final-stretch run that saw opponents make just 9 of 36 third-down attempts, including holding favored Florida to 3 of 10 in January's 33-23 Sugar Bowl upset.
Though the Cardinals finished tied for 74th nationally at nearly 42% (70 of 168), they had matured by season's end and cite that growth as a factor in their inspired third-down play this season. Players have certainly become comfortable with defensive coordinator Vance Bedford's relentless philosophy that has yielded just 27 points overall and recorded six sacks the past two games.
"Last year, when people got in the red zone or moved the ball, you'd get down and see it on people's faces," said Brown, Louisville's tackler with 24. "Now, when people start moving the ball, everybody mans up and knows we really got to get off the field."
Despite yielding a season-high 376 yards and a late touchdown that made Saturday's 27-13 win over Kentucky briefly interesting, the outcome had basically been decided thanks to several Cardinals stops on third down:
— Defensive end Marcus Smith's first-quarter strip and fumble recovery at Kentucky's 25 that set up the Cardinals' first points on a John Wallace field goal;
— Junior end Lorenzo Mauldin dropping Raymond Sanders for a 2-yard loss that resulted in their first touchdown just before halftime;
— Receiver-turned-cornerback Charles Gaines's third-quarter interception of Jalen Whitlow at the 2, leading to another field goal that made it 20-6.
Louisville's third-down performance against Kentucky tied what it did in October 1999 against Eastern Michigan. The Cardinals topped that effort three years later against the Blue Devils.
Oregon held Portland State to 0-for-18 on third down in September 2010 and the Ducks' effort is the most dominating performance dating back to 1996, according to STATS LLC.
The Cardinals are looking to maintain their third-down success and address other defensive concerns against FIU.
Louisville is still giving up more big plays than it would like and wants to eliminate those soft areas with tighter run and pass coverage.
Still, when it comes to third down, the Cardinals defense want to continue giving Bridgewater more opportunities.
"We have to get off the field so we can force people to punt the ball and get the ball back for our offense," coach Charlie Strong said. "We get the ball back, we know we have a chance to go score."