Here’s the good news. UConn has spent an entire extra week resting, fixing its mistakes and preparing for tomorrow night’s game.
Here’s the bad news: So has no. 20 Louisville.
After their 34-3 whooping of USF, the Cardinals will soon enter The Rent armed with a 6-1 record, the only blemish courtesy of no. 21 UCF. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is arguably the best in the entire country, orchestrating an offense that is no. 1 on third down and in the top-20 for scoring, time of possession and passing efficiency.
If those numbers blew you away, it’s now time to reel you back in for some more. The Louisville defense has regularly been suffocating the opponents that comprise its cupcake schedule with performances that have earned it a top-3 ranking in points allowed, total yards, pass defense, rush defense and sacks.
You can decide whether or not the Cardinals present a stiffer test than the Knights did nearly two weeks back.
The point here is that if the Huskies fail to bring their A-game under the lights, they could very well suffer the same fate they did on that sunny afternoon in Orlando— a 66-17 defeat at the hands of an AAC favorite.
Everything here starts with Bridgewater. The junior gunslinger is as pro-ready as they come with his outstanding presence, accuracy, vision, football acumen, mechanics and mobility. These traits allow him to optimally direct an offense full of pre-snap shifts and varied backfields that has scored on almost every opening drive this year.
Now any analysis of the future NFL lottery pick would force me to exhaust my stash of superlatives, so instead I’ll point you in the direction of some excellent work done on him three weeks ago. Matt Miller, the lead NFL Draft analyst at Bleacher Report, penned a wonderfully detailed scouting look at Bridgewater and fellow Heisman hopeful Marcus Mariota (hyperlink: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/1813754-teddy-bridgewater-vs-marcus-mariota-comparing-the-top-qbs-in-2014-nfl-draft).
According to Miller, he is the second-best quarterback prospect of the last five years, ahead of Robert Griffin III and behind only Andrew Luck.
I believe him; so take a second to read it. Right now.
Behind Bridgewater is a three-headed monster of capable backs that has combined to average better than five yards per carry. Junior Dominique Brown began to emerge as the lead runner over their last two games, including a 125-yard effort against USF on just 18 carries. Even at 6’ 2”, Brown is an all-around back, who runs with very good patience and balance. His long-field speed is well above average, as is his catching ability and physical running style.
Senior Senorise Perry was the one to hand the starter’s baton off to Brown two Saturdays ago, after five career 100-yard performances of his own. Perry possesses rare acceleration that has also helped him pick up five rushing scores on the season. Last is the powerful Michael Dyer. The Auburn transfer checks in at a stout 5’ 9” 215 pounds and averages a hair less than 32 yards per contest.
Out wide, the highly underrated Devante Parker leads the Louisville receivers and tight ends. Though, it’s important to note that the strength of this group is in its numbers. Bridgewater does an excellent job of spreading the ball around to a number of talented guys, as seen in their ridiculous 63.4 percent conversion rate on third down. Three different Louisville wideouts have caught six balls or more when fourth down is on the horizon. [Insert “Holy (choice of profanity)” comment here].
Even more notable is the unit’s explosive 14.3 yards/reception average, good for fourteenth in the nation. Parker’s personal big-play ability lies more in his ball skills, route running and run after the catch skills than any pure speed, Nevertheless, he has already recorded seven touchdowns, which leads the team. Damian Copeland and Eli Rogers are atop the stat sheet in receptions, as each are a threat in their own right.
Copeland, a 6’ 1” senior, possesses very good speed and the capability to become a no. 1 wide receiver on his own. Nearly one month ago against Rutgers, he reeled off an eight-catch, 115-yard game while Parker sat on the sidelines with an injury. Rogers, meanwhile, is a bit smaller, but his sure hands are Bridgewater’s favorite sight on third down.
Beneath these three on the depth chart, you’ll find two receivers who own 15 catches on the year. Speedy Florida transfer Robert Clark measures in at 5’ 9” while Kai De La Cruz has 271 yards and three scores on the season. However since Louisville’s opening contest against Ohio, De La Cruz has only produced 155 yards and one touchdown over seven games.
Elsewhere, tight end Gerald Christian has caught a ball in every game this season and even his back-up Ryan Hubbell is amongst those who can get downfield. Hubbell has hauled in nine Bridgewater passes for 171 yards or an average of 19 yards per catch.
Up front, the Carindals’ offensive line is another seasoned bunch. Yet, the biggest of the red birds have suffered a number of injuries, leaving them particularly susceptible along the right side. Most recently, 340-pound sophomore Anthony “Nacho” Garcia went down against USF with a knee injury that is likely to keep him out tomorrow night. Garcia was amongst three different linemen to start at right guard and the first of two to man the right tackle spot.
Second-year tackle Ryan Mack is the current starter on the far right as he lines up next to guard Kamran Joyer. Joyer is by far the lightest of all Louisville linemen, though this aids him when on the move with pulls in the run game, which is his greatest strength. His teammates to the left all check in at over 300 pounds.
Center Jake Smith prepares his ninth consecutive start this season and left guard John Miller will make his fourteen straight overall. Left tackle Jamon Brown has taken nearly every snap of the Bridgewater era at a surprisingly mobile 350 pounds. He ought to get looks at the next level.
UCONN Keys to Success:
Turnovers, wins on first down and delayed blitzes. While taking the ball away is the most critical factor for any underdog, turnovers are paramount in any game. So, we’ll skip the more obvious point and move onto the other two. Given the great success that the Cardinals enjoy on third down, the Huskies have to do themselves a favor by at least lengthening the chains on those plays. Short runs and incompletions must be aplenty early in drives.
Furthermore, I believe the best way to force Bridgewater passes to hit the turn on any down will be with disguise and delayed pressure. He is a master at diagnosing blitzes pre-sanp and the Huskies do a poor job of disguising before the hike of the ball anyways. So they must show him one thing post-snap and then bring something different afterward. This places a lot of pressure on the secondary, but USF executed a number of these to bring Bridgewater down.
Pressure, pressure, pressure.
This Louisville defense is one of the most veteran groups from coast-to-coast after it lost just a single starter from a year ago. The Cardinals’ experience allows them to execute a variety of fronts and blitzes, particularly on third down when they like to bring extra heat. Rarely will they send all-out attacks, preferring instead to twist and cross blitz with their ends and linebackers.
Louisville can and does rotate from their 4-3 base into occasional 3-4 fronts with the same personnel, thanks to the athleticism of senior defensive end Marcus Smith. He has teamed with fellow end rusher Lorenzo Mauldin for 12.5 sacks on the year. They were deemed as perhaps the best pair of starting ends in the country by interim coach T.J. Weist earlier this week. Senior tackles Roy Philon and Brandon Dunn fill the middle of this unit primarily for run support.
The dangerous pass-rushing duo is matched in effectiveness by their teammates in the back end, safeties Calvin Pryor and Hakeem Smith. NFL clubs are scouting each heavily for their versatility and playmaking ability, which has generated a combined five interceptions in 2013. Pryor is second on the team in tackles and forced fumbles with 47 and two respectively.
Smith is highly active in run support and has long been a stalwart of this secondary, going back to his Big East rookie of the year honors in 2010. On the outside, cornerbacks Terell Floyd and Charles Gaines have served admirably in coverage this season. Gaines is a converted receiver, who raced a 70-yard pick-six back against USF two weeks ago.
Leading the linebacking core is arguably the best player on this team behind Mr. Bridgewater: Preston Brown. Brown is an extraordinarily strong, physical tackling machine with considerable instincts at the middle linebacker spot. He’s started all but two games for the Cardinals since 2011 and recorded three forced fumbles in this season alone. The only low marks in his scouting report are a lack of recovery speed and change of direction, which can be used against him if he bites on play-action.
Although, the 6’ 0” 260-pound ‘backer is rarely found out of position and will be a force tomorrow night against the Husky run game. He’s flanked by outside linebackers George Durant and James Burgess. Burgess is highly athletic, though both men are effective blitzers in their own way.
UCONN Key to Success: A diverse, successful running game early. I don’t believe Tim Boyle will be able to throw against this pressure defense without problems for long, so UConn must be able to get Louisville to shorten their call sheet. Limit the number of different pressures he’ll see by running varied run calls and misdirection with success. If the Huskies can move the ball on the ground, the Cardinals will have to go to more discliplined, base defenses.
To this point, I also believe Boyle has been underutilized in the run game thus far, so get his jitters out with a couple zone-reads and inverted veers. If he and McCombs can move the chains, he’ll be better suited to throw via play-action and against simpler coverages.
PREDICTION: Louisville 44 UConn 13
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