Louisville, KY (SportsNetwork.com) - In the first part of a difficult two-game stretch for Louisville, the eighth-ranked Cardinals host the Rutgers Scarlet Knights in a critical American Athletic Conference battle at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.
The Scarlet Knights are carrying a four-game winning streak into this contest, though the most recent victory certainly wasn't an easy one. On the road against SMU the Scarlet Knights escaped with a 55-52 win in triple overtime thanks to a 17-yard touchdown run from Justin Goodwin. Rutgers is now 4-1 overall and 1-0 in-conference as it sets its sights on ruining Louisville's perfect season.
That mission for the Cardinals has been going well through the first five games. Louisville is sporting a 5-0 mark after posting a 30-7 win at Temple in the conference opener last weekend. It is the third time in the last 11 seasons that Louisville has started off 5-0. Louisville has won 16 of its last 18 games overall and each of its last four road contests.
The first of those four wins away from home was earned in the regular season finale last season against this same Rutgers squad. In that contest the 9-2 Scarlet Knights faced the 9-2 Cardinals with a chance to earn the Big East title outright. However, Gary Nova threw an interception near midfield with just over a minute to play allowing the Cardinals to escape with a 20-17 victory.
"When you get to the end of the year and you play in a championship game, because that's what it ended up being, and you come up a couple plays short I don't know that anybody needs to be reminded of that," Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood said, though he denied any extra motivation from the loss. "We have an opportunity to stay undefeated in the conference. I don't think we need any more motivation than that."
Rutgers leads the all-time series, 7-5.
Nova is still under center for the Scarlet Knights and will certainly be trying to make up for his last-minute mistake a year ago. This season Nova has still had a bit of an issue with turnovers (four interceptions) but he has been a more productive passer, throwing for 1,171 yards and 13 touchdowns. Nova still isn't completing passes as at a very high rate (83-of-142) and has been hounded by pressure, suffering 11 sacks already.
Although Brandon Coleman (15 receptions, 220 yards, two TDs), tagged as an NFL prospect due to his size and skill, leads the team in receptions, it has been Leonte Carroo who has been making the biggest plays in the passing game. Carroo (14 receptions, 291 yards) has brought in an AAC-leading seven touchdown passes. Carroo has been especially important late in games as six of those scores have come in the fourth quarter or later, including the pair he caught against SMU. Other targets Nova tends to rely on are tight end Tyler Kroft (14 receptions, 224 yards, two TDs) and Quron Pratt (13 receptions, 165 yards).
Goodwin really impressed in his first real chance as he totaled 149 yards and two scores on 24 carries against SMU. Goodwin, a true freshman, has been forced into a more prominent role in the offense with AAC-leading rusher Paul James sidelined with a leg injury that will have him out again on Thursday.
Defense was the calling card a year ago for the Scarlet Knights. This season Rutgers has shown more weakness in that area, allowing 27.6 points and 376.8 yards per game. However, Rutgers still plays the same aggressive style and is currently tied with Louisville for the conference lead in sacks (15), while ranking third in tackles for loss (37).
Steve Longa (50 tackles, 3.0 sacks) leads the team in total stops and is one of six players to have at least 3.0 tackles for loss already.
The Heisman campaign for Teddy Bridgewater continues to chug along after the Cardinals' quarterback hung up another impressive performance against Temple. Bridgewater completed 25-of-35 pass attempts for 348 yards and two scores against the Owls. He has completed 71.7 percent of his pass attempts this season for 1,562 yards and 16 touchdowns, against just one interception. Bridgewater has also thrown a touchdown pass in 17 straight games, a streak that will likely continue deep into this season.
Bridgewater and the Cardinals did suffer a big loss against Temple, even if it didn't show up on the scoreboard. Leading receiver DeVante Parker (21 receptions, 375 yards, six TDs) left the game with an apparent shoulder injury and is listed as doubtful for Thursday's games.
Losing Parker would be a big loss but with pass-catchers like Damian Copeland (15 receptions, 264 yards, three TDs), Eli Rogers (15 receptions, 279 yards, two TDs), Kai De La Cruz (12 receptions, 215 yards, two TDs) and Gerald Christian (16 receptions, 188 yards, three TDs), the Cardinals should be fine.
"We have enough receivers, we don't have the big play ability with DeVante where you can just throw the ball up in the red zone. We can put guys in place and let them go play," Louisville head coach Charlie Strong said of how Parker's possible absence would affect the offense.
In terms of running the ball the Cardinals rely on the trio of Senorise Perry (298 yards, four TDs), Dominique Brown (250 yards, two TDs) and Michael Dyer (205 yards, two TDs), with each getting plenty of work through the first five games.
Louisville has been just as effective on defense. Although it may not possess a player like Bridgewater that grabs the national headlines, the unit is leading the AAC in just about every defensive category including total defense (227.4 ypg), scoring defense (6.8 ppg) and opponent third down conversion rate (16-of-66).
Preston Brown (37 tackles, 7.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks), Marcus Smith (7.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks) and Lorenzo Mauldin (8.0 TFL, 6.0 sacks) have helped the Cardinals create pressure and keep opposing offenses on the sidelines.