LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Louisville's defense feels good about making plays that have either changed or saved games this season.
The No. 16 Cardinals would feel better making more of the routine plays and avoid the need for late-game heroics.
Defensive lulls in Saturday's 27-25 win over South Florida cost the Cardinals another a big lead and force them to make another late stand to escape with a victory. It also was another unexpected battle with an underdog, reminding the Cardinals (7-0, 2-0 Big East Conference) they can't take any opponent for granted.
Louisville will need the complete defensive game that coach Charlie Strong has been stressing on Friday night in the Big East showdown against Cincinnati (5-1, 1-0), which leads the conference in several offensive categories — including scoring (34.7 points per game).
"When we get a lead, (that's) the time to really go hard instead of backing off," Strong said. "It's not OK to let a team go down the field and score, even though we're up by 10 or 11 points. Now it's (time) to go lock down and really play aggressive and get off the field on third down."
That's been a problem for Louisville, which ranks last in the conference (45.5 percent). South Florida converted 8 of 15 chances, rallying from a 14-3 halftime deficit to take a 25-21 lead into the final minutes before quarterback Teddy Bridgewater kept Louisville unbeaten with a game-winning touchdown drive.
Last month, North Carolina went 5 of 6 on third down in the second half to mount a 27-3 run that wiped out a 36-7 halftime deficit. The Tar Heels got within four yards of winning the game before the Cardinals' Andrew Johnson broke up a late pass in the end zone to preserve a 39-34 win.
"It's not the things they (opponents) do, it's the things we don't do that gets us in trouble," junior linebacker George Durant said. "Our coaches have the game plan down to a 'T,' and we have to dot the 'I's'. If we execute that and stay in our gaps and do our assignments, we'll shut teams out."
Most of the Cardinals' issues concern a run defense that was expected to be their strength this season. It still is for the most part, ranking 34th at 125.9 yards per game.
But that's 25 more than last year's average, and it's just fifth best in the Big East. In addition, the Cardinals have allowed 197 yards to South Florida and a season-high 224 to Southern Mississippi.
In comes Cincinnati, averaging a conference-best 225.7 rushing yards per game. Though the Bearcats gained 251 in Saturday's 29-23 loss at Toledo, their third-highest total this season, they expect more resistance from the Cardinals.
"They have a number of strengths," Cincinnati coach Butch Jones said. "First of all, their overall depth. They play a number of guys, they're big and physical up front. Their linebackers are run-and-hit guys that move extremely well laterally, and they have some very, very good corners and active safeties.
"They're a pressure-oriented defense and I think sometimes when you bring a lot of pressure, that kind of lends itself to the big play."
Strong blames the problem on general inconsistency and specifically on players failing to sustain their gaps against the run. He believes both issues can be corrected with enhanced focus and remembering that stopping the run can lead to other good things.
"It might be one or two people out of a gap for various reasons, that's the main thing," Durant added. "If everyone takes their gap, nobody gets a yard."
But for all of those concerns, Saturday's game revealed examples of Louisville's resilience.
Sophomore defensive end Lorenzo Mauldin stopped South Florida late in the first half by sacking quarterback B.J. Daniels and stripping him of the ball, preserving Louisville's 14-3 lead. That highlighted a six-tackle day including three for loss and two sacks, earning Big East Defensive Player of the Week honors.
After Daniels rallied the Bulls with three second-half touchdown passes, he was denied on the final drive when Adrian Bushell intercepted his Hail Mary pass as time ran out.
The Cardinals hope that crunch-time focus can be applied earlier in games.
"People are down on our defense, and now we're just starting to let the country know that we are going to make a stand," said Mauldin, who has 2.5 sacks the past two games. "We are making a stand for ourselves, and we're going to be the toughest defense in the Big East."
Added linebacker Preston Brown, "we're 7-0, so we're finding ways to win, but we need to put a complete game together so we don't have to worry about trying to get a Hail Mary pass down there in the fourth quarter."