ORLANDO - The Knights face an athletic Louisville team in week three. There’s no room for making mental or physical errors against a team with several dynamic athletes that can make a defender miss in space or simply run over an opposing player. It’s Louisville’s defense, however, that’s more difficult to read moving forward. Here’s a look at the Cardinals on defense before moving to the offensive side of the football.
The Louisville Defense, Good or Bad?
Maybe it’s just a mediocre Louisville defensive unit and there’s a happy medium between good and bad. Against Ole Miss, the Cardinals certainly deserved to be called bad. The Ole Miss offense proved to be dynamic last season and started out that way against Louisville this season during opening weekend, but Louisville's front seven defenders often did not play their gap responsibilities well, and did not hold the line of scrimmage. Those issues resulted with 188 rushing yards for the Rebels.
Because of the rushing defense concerns, will the Cardinals slow down UCF’s rushing attack this Friday night? The Cardinals front seven will be going against UCF running back Isaiah Bowser and a very good UCF offensive line.
There’s no reason to believe that UCF will go away from playing power football against Louisville, as UCF averages 272.5 yards per game, including hammering Boise State’s front seven for 255 yards for a 5.3 yards per carry average. How the Knights run the football could severely impact what Louisville does with its pass defense.
Louisville's Defense Struggles Against the Pass
The passing game did not stick with Ole Miss receivers and tight ends very well. The rebels accumulated 22 receptions for 381 yards. That’s an astronomical 17.3 yards per reception. For the season, Louisville's pass defense holds the No. 101 position nationally, allowing 265 yards through the air per game. Louisville’s defense did play better against a far less talented Eastern Kentucky team this past Saturday.
The pass defense allowed 23 receptions, but this time only 149 yards from the receptions. That’s good for allowing 6.5 yards per catch. The defense also performed better against the run, only allowing 86 rushing yards from 22 carries, a 3.91 yards per carry average. There is one Louisville defensive back to watch.
Sophomore Kei’trel Clark intercepted two passes, both against Eastern Kentucky. The 5’10”, 180 pound cornerback could be a player that UCF quarterback Dillon Gabriel attacks, but probably not as likely as other Cardinals defenders.
Even with Clark, UCF's wide receiver speed is bound to hit a few big plays. Through two games, six different UCF players caught at least one touchdown. It's also important to note that Jaylon Robinson averages 23.4 yards per reception. How Louisville covers the talented UCF playmaker will be important because he can change a game with one play.
Statistical Trends: Three of the top four Louisville tacklers are defensive backs. Further, no Louisville defensive lineman currently resides within the Louisville top 10 in tackles. The Cardinals recorded a mere three sacks through the first two games, two versus Ole Miss and one while playing Eastern Kentucky.
This is a unit that’s been gashed at times, and those two prior statistics provide insight into why it does not stop the run all that well. There’s a chance that UCF runs the football right at Louisville and receives success in doing so. Now on to an overview of the Louisville offense.
Louisville’s Passing Offense Starting to Play Better
The Cardinals might be catching the Knights at the right time because the passing game started to take shape, at least in spurts, against Eastern Kentucky. Freshman wide receiver Ahmari Huggins-Bruce dominated Eastern Kentucky by catching four passes for 151 yards. He’s a smaller wide receiver at 5’10”, 160 pounds, but he makes big plays.
The consistent wide receiver that’s capable of moving the chains would be senior Josh Johnson. He’s recorded eight receptions for 81 yards. If the Knights curtail Huggins-Bruce and Johnson, there’s a good chance to really take away points from Louisville. Those are still not the only two wide receivers to worry about, however.
From the first two games, seven Louisville players have caught at least three passes. This includes a running back, five wide receivers and a tight end. There’s also one bigger wide receiver that can really run, but he has not produced a huge game just yet.
With Justin Marshall also an explosive perimeter threat, the Cardinals can strike with several wide receivers. He’s listed at 6’3”, 213 pounds. With players like Marshall to defend, the Knights will need to continue to prove their one-on-one tackling ability, which certainly took place from game one through game two, to defeat Louisville.
Of course the man running the show would be senior signal caller Malik Cunningham. He’s completed 37 of 60 passes for 469 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
Cardinals’ Rushing Attack Provides Size and a Versatile Quarterback
Louisville lost dynamic running back Javian Hawkins a year early to the NFL, but there’s still talen on the Cardinals running back depth chart, with a freshman taking the bulk of the carries.
During the first two games, 5’10, 220-pound Jalen Mitchell toted the football 30 times for 139 yards. Surprisingly, the big running back did not yet score a rushing touchdown. He’s backed up by junior Hassan Hall, but the secondary runner would truly be Cardinals quarterback Malik Cunningham, a true dual-threat signal caller.
Cunningham rushed 29 times for 108 yards and four touchdowns so far in 2021. His 3.7 yards per carry can be misleading as well. He’s been sacked three times for minus-five yards as well. Taking away the sacks, Cunningham averaged 4.3 yards per carry.
With the combination of the two talented runners, the Knights will need to be efficient when tracking the football, taking proper angles to the ball carrier, and of course wrapping up Mitchell and Cunningham among other runners.
The Louisville rushing attack will be going against a really good front seven. Should be a fun matchup to watch.
Louisville's Offense Could Possess an X-Factor
One of the areas that Louisville does a really good job of creating a diversion against a defensive opponent would be with motions and shifts. It oftentimes creates confusion for a secondary and/or the linebackers, resulting in a wide open player for a big passing play. Watch out for sophomore tight end Marshon Ford. He will likely be moved to different spots on the field and also go in motion in an attempt for Louisville’s offense to gain a numbers advantage to one side of the formation.
That’s when the Cardinals can truly catch a defense off guard. The 6’2” 240 pound Ford would be a great example, and he’s also not likely to draw as much attention as the Louisville wide receivers. Watch out for Ford this Friday night. He’s already caught five passes for 56 yards, an 11.2 yards per catch average. With his size, Ford could be especially enticing for Cunningham to throw the football when the Cardinals reach the red zone.
Penalties Could Also Play a Crucial Role
The Cardinals committed 15 penalties during the first two games, ranking Louisville No. 76 nationally in the total number of penalties. In close games, a mental error that causes a false start penalty, offsides penalty or similar could cost the Cardinals. It’s an area to watch. Louisville should not be considered a disciplined team. UCF committed 10 penalties thus far in 2021. That’s not ideal, but far better than 15 penalties.