In their final non-league bout of the season, Teddy Bridgewater and the seventh-ranked Louisville Cardinals will host the FIU Panthers at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.
After taking some difficult losses in their first two games, the Panthers really suffered last time out with a 34-13 setback against FCS foe Bethune Cookman. The lost dropped the Panthers to 0-3 on the campaign. FIU already faced a team from the American Athletic Conference this season and was no match for UCF in a 38-0 shutout.
Three games in and Louisville has been able to keep itself on track for a national title run. The Cardinals are 3-0 after a tough road test against instate rival Kentucky last time out. Bridgewater struggled more than usual, completing just 16-of-28 pass attempts, but it was enough to lift the Cardinals to a 27-13 win and keep their record unscathed. With a win on Saturday, Louisville will be 4-0 for the second straight season and just the ninth time since 1946.
"We're always playing against ourselves and not the opponent. The guys have to understand that even though we're in the position that we're in, we have to get better and we're going to get better," Louisville head coach Charlie Strong, who has constantly downplayed the Cardinals success, said.
This is the third straight season the Cardinals and Panthers have met, after never having matched up previously. The Cardinals took the contest on the road, 28-21, a year ago, while the Panthers got a 24-17 victory in 2011. The Panthers' win came in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.
The Panthers have been searching for answers on offense. In the first three games they have managed to score just 23 points total, while averaging 191 yards of total offense. With the lack of production, FIU is at the bottom of Conference USA in both scoring and total offense, while second to last in both categories nationally.
Jake Medlock will likely continue to be the starter at quarterback for the Panthers, though E.J. Hilliard has gotten looks in each game this season. Medlock has completed just 54.5 percent of his pass attempts and totaled only 303 yards and one touchdown. The one score came against Bethune Cookman, as did his lone interception. A lack of protection in the pocket has hurt Medlock's performance as he has been sacked eight times.
After a quiet first two weeks, when he had just 44 yards on six receptions, T.J. Lowder burst open with six receptions for 125 yards and a touchdown against Bethune Cookman. Only Fred Porter (six receptions, 77 yards) and Jonnu Smith (seven receptions, 54 yards) are anywhere close to those kinds of numbers.
Running the ball has been nearly impossible for FIU. The Panthers are averaging just 1.9 yards per carry with leading rusher Lamarq Caldwell only managing 144 yards on 44 carries in three games.
It is not as if the Panthers have been losing just because of offensive struggles. FIU has been as porous as any team in the country on defense, allowing 38.3 points and 438.3 yards per game.
Greg Hickman (5.5 tackles for loss) and Isame Faciane (5.0 tackles for loss) have been the lone bright spots for the Panthers, with each helping create negative plays at a solid rate. In fact, the Panthers have 22 tackles for loss on the season, ranking third in the league.
Against Kentucky, Bridgewater looked human for the first time this season. With 16 completions, 250 yards and a single touchdown, Bridgewater had easily his worst game of the year. If there was a positive it was that Bridgewater did not turn the ball over. Even with the pedestrian outing, he is a superior talent and should be back in line with his season numbers (62-of-88, 1,002 yards, 10 TDs, INT) more often than not, especially this week.
"He missed some throws, but sometimes, he's going to play like that," Strong said of Bridgewater's performance against Kentucky. "I always tell our guys that even if our offense isn't playing well, the defense has to play well, which the defense did."
Luckily for Bridgewater, or perhaps because of him, the Cardinals' roster is filled with productive offensive playmakers. DeVante Parker (13 receptions, 257 yards, four TDs) and Damian Copeland (12 receptions, 211 yards, three TDs) are one of the most explosive receiving tandems in not only the American Athletic Conference, but the nation as a whole. Eli Rogers (eight receptions, 160 yards) and tight end Gerald Christian (10 receptions, 129 yards, TD) provide even more depth.
"Sometimes, we get caught up, like how Teddy's (Bridgewater) playing. We forget about how there's more players around him," Strong said.
The running game has also been strong behind Bridgewater. As a team the Cardinals are producing 173 rushing yards per game, with a trio of running backs leading the way. Senorise Perry paces the team in carries (37), yards (194) and rushing touchdowns (three), but Michael Dyer (22 attempts, 132 yards, TD) and Dominique Brown (25 attempts, 98 yards) provide plenty of help.
Even with all the weapons on offense, Strong has maintained his identity as a defensive-minded coach. His unit this season has been stellar. The Cardinals are allowing just nine points per game and holding teams to 285 yards of total offense on average. Louisville has also succeeded in keeping teams from sustaining drives by allowing just 10 first downs on 41 third down attempts.
Preston Brown (24 tackles, 2.0 sacks) has been the leader for the squad. Lorenzo Mauldin (3.0 sacks) and Brandon Dunn (4.0 sacks) have provided a strong pass rush. The Cardinals have been adept at getting into the backfield as a team with 24 tackles for loss.