Saturday will mark the 51st contest between the Louisville Cardinals and the Cincinnati Bearcats. Make no bones about it. I love the Keg of Nails, and you should to. UC still holds the series lead 29-20-1, but Louisville has won 13 of the last 20 contests. One other thing to note is that the Bearcats are shooting for four straight kegs, a feat UC hasn't accomplished since 1984-87.
It is safe to say the Cardinals offense is a hot mess. 94th in total offense, 95th in rushing, 63rd in passing, 112th in scoring ect. The issues really start up front. Last years Cardinals boasted a big, physical and above all experienced offensive line. Four of last years starters moved on and the lone returner, and the best of the bunch, Mario Benavides missed the first three games of the season. The offensive struggles can be chalked up in large part to the issues along the offensive line. That's not to say that it's all on them, but there are enough pieces in the skill positions to fashion a competent offense if given room to operate.
The running game is a bit of a disaster. The OLine issues coupled with the departure of Bilal Powell guaranteed that the running game would take a step of some kind backwards. But I don't think that anyone anticipated it being a backward step of this magnitude (pop, pop!). Nothing illustrates the point more than this stat. Chris Philpott is the Cardinals 4th leader rusher in 2011. This is strange for two reasons 1) he has just two carries on the year 2) he is the kicker.
So the Cards can't run the ball which means they have had to rely on the passing game, and since Will Stein went down in the second quarter of the Kentucky game that has meant putting the game in Teddy Bridgewater's hands. Bridgewater is an immensely talented young quarterback, and he has help among the receivers. But it's still having him go out and try to win games with a terrible offensive line and no support what so ever from the running game is a big ask. No wonder Mike Sanford was effectively removed from his duties. In short the offense for the Cardinals needs help, and a lot of it. Thats the bad news, but the good news is...
Charlie Strong cut his teeth on the defensive side of the ball and he knows what he is doing. Louisville is a solid top 25 defense in my opinion. The Cardinals have lost three games by a combined 18 points on the year. The defense isn't the problem. They are great against the pass and good enough against the pass.
The Cardinals approach is the same as it was last year. They are a heavy fire zone team and will bring that 5th defender from anywhere. They are going to put pressure on the QB to make plays, the effectiveness of the QB won't have any impact on the approach to the game. My anticipation is that the two concerns the Cardinals have about UC are containing Isaiah Pead and keeping Zach Collaros in the pocket, and the approach to both will be through pressure.
The secondary is hit or miss. I really like Shenard Holton and Hakeem Smith at the safety spots. Both a big, rangy guys who cover ground with ease and bring the thunder when they find the ball, ask D.J. Woods. But, I am not that impressed with either their corners or nickle backs. D.J. dominated in the slot during last years contest and I have a feeling that Anthony McClung will have similar success, hopefully without the concussion.
As mentioned above it turns out that the 4th leading rusher is also a decent enough kicker. He isn't great, as his 2 for 5 strike rate on FGs would indicate. But he is pretty good a kickoffs with a touch back rate of just over 31 per cent. Philpott also handles the punting duties and is averging just under 40 yards per punt. Also as you would expect for a team starved of experience and depth the return and kickoff units are nothing to write home about, save the punt coverage unit which is damn good.
The Final Word
Louisville is a young team that is full of potential. But the chances of them reaching that potential on both sides of the ball for a long period of time are low. But this is a rivalry game and it is the conference opener for both teams, and as such things could get interesting, particularly if UC puts a Miami like show on display coming out of the bye week.