Last year the Cardinals waved goodbye to a star QB, said hello to the ACC and were reintroduced to a coach who’d left for the NFL more than a decade ago. But instead of Bobby Petrino’s offense ruling, a stout D led the way. Now Petrino aims to put the Charlie Strong era to rest and fully reclaim his high-scoring Cards.
How the Cardinals beat you: While Petrino’s offense relied heavily on the pass in ’14 (252 ypg, No. 4 in the ACC) and lacked pop in the run game (3.6 ypc, No. 12 in the ACC), the strength of this season could very well be the backfield. Junior RB Brandon Radcliff, who returns after a breakout season in which he rushed for 737 yards (614 over the final nine games) and 12 TDs, will be complemented by 226-pound soph L.J. Scott and juco transfer Jeremy Smith. If the Cards can find replacements for three departing O-line starters, Petrino’s scheme could be more balanced and more potent: Louisville kept defenses honest with 35 completions of 25-plus yards in ’14 (No. 21 in the FBS).
How you beat the Cardinals: Even with one of the nation’s most veteran O-lines last season, nearly 30 percent of Louisville’s running plays went for a loss or no gain (No. 113 in the FBS). So change up front may be welcome; coordinator Garrick McGee knows his line must deliver, given that the wideouts lack an established playmaker (leading returning receiver James Quick had 566 yards in ’14) and QB Will Gardner is coming off a late-season knee injury. His backups (soph Reggie Bonnafon will likely start the season) have proved inconsistent: 6 TDs and 7 INTs in the five games Gardner missed.
How the Cardinals beat you Coordinator Todd Grantham’s aggressive 3-4 scheme was a hit in Year 1—Louisville racked up 41 sacks (No. 10 in the FBS), while the DBs took advantage of the pressure with 26 interceptions, tops in the FBS. For the season, opposing QBs when under duress gained just 3.4 yards per attempt (No. 5 in the ACC) and completed 24.7 percent of their passes (No. 3 in the ACC) with 6 INTs (tied for first in the ACC). The bulk of that pass rush returns in seniors DE Sheldon Rankins and LB James Burgess—23 ½ tackles for loss, the second-highest total by a returning tandem in the ACC—and junior LB Keith Kelsey (6 sacks).
How you beat the Cardinals: Even with two top DBs gone—safety Gerod Holliman (14 INTs in ’14, tied for the FBS single-season record) and CB Charles Gaines—the rush D could be the bigger concern. Over the first eight games of ’14, Louisville allowed just 2.2 yards per carry and 1 rushing TD. In the final five games, opponents gained 4.5 ypc and scored 11 times, a stretch when veteran DE Lorenzo Mauldin was dealing with injury. Now Mauldin (13 tackles for loss) is gone for good, along with DT B.J. Dubose and DE Deiontrez Mount (19 tackles for loss combined). So while you keep your eyes focused downfield, don’t ignore the trenches.