When Louisville and North Carolina played last season, the Cardinals were in a bit of disarray.
Coach Charlie Strong had relieved offensive coordinator Mike Sanford of his duties and put Shawn Watson in charge. Strong had a true freshman quarterback making his second career start. He had no real running game to speak of, and his offensive line featured several freshmen starters as well.
Things did not go well for the Cardinals, as North Carolina won 14-7.
But much has changed in just a year. It is the No. 19 Cardinals who look formidable this season behind sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who has played pretty close to perfect. Louisville has scored 30-plus points in consecutive games and is favored to beat a Tar Heels team that lost a heartbreaker to Wake Forest last week.
Strong, though, does not want his team to forget about what happened last year. All around the football complex, he has signs that read North Carolina 14 in big type; Louisville 7 is down below in a much smaller size.
“Last year, we were very young,” said Louisville receiver Eli Rogers, who played as a true freshman against UNC last season. “We had a very young offense. We had a couple young guys on defense, but now we’re just a year older and everyone understands how to go hard and understands what discipline is about now. Our offense has improved tremendously. Our O-line has come along. We still have a long way to go. North Carolina’s defense is really good, so this is a challenge for us, but we’re up for it this year.”
Bridgewater has been the biggest key to what Louisville has been able to do in two games. He has thrown for 576 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions with just 11 incompletions. He ranks No. 12 in the nation in passing efficiency.
Compare that to his performance last year against North Carolina: Bridgewater had 11 incompletions in the game, threw for 173 yards, and had a touchdown and interception.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Bridgewater is completing 84.6 percent of his third-down passes this season, second best in FBS among players with a minimum of 10 attempts. Nine of his 11 completions went for first downs. Bridgewater completed 59.8 percent on third down during the 2011 season.
“He’s an outstanding quarterback,” North Carolina linebacker Kevin Reddick said. “He’s making plays for them, and doing what the coaches ask of him. I feel like he’s watching film a lot and knowing what his reads are and making those plays.”
Facing a quarterback as good as Bridgewater is a huge test for this North Carolina defense, which allowed Tanner Price to throw for a career-high 327 yards last week in a loss, and allowed receiver Michael Campanaro to get a career-high 164 yards receiving.
Wake Forest drove 93 yards and Price was 5-of-7 for 67 yards on its game-winning, fourth quarter drive.
“It's a scary thought after what we did last week,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said about the prospects of stopping Bridgewater. “We're working hard on our pass-rush lanes making sure that we contain. We sit in there with him. At the same time you're trying to get pressure, but not trying to open up lanes for him. On the back end, you have to do a great job of coverage. They obviously have more than one receiver that's making plays for them. So that makes it even more difficult. It's definitely a concern for us.”
Both teams are supremely motivated in this one: Louisville to show it deserves better than its No. 19 ranking; North Carolina to show it is better on defense than it showed a week ago, with a chance to take down a ranked opponent.
“We’re pumped for this game,” Reddick said. “I know the whole defense is playing with a whole chip on our shoulder, to get more sacks, more interceptions. If we do what we’re supposed to do and not make the game so close, we can be that defense we know we can be.”