It’s hard to fault much from the University of Louisville in a resounding 32-14 win over rival Kentucky, but head coach Charlie Strong said “We’re still not there.”
And after further review, Strong is right.
The Cardinals scored on five of the six drives with starter Teddy Bridgewater in the game, making it look easy on drives of 85, 93 and 99 yards.
Even the special teams, a spot Strong was worried about heading into the week, played well and only had a couple of slight breakdowns.
But the defense needs to improve. UK racked up 373 total yards and moved the ball with ease at times in the second half.
“We held them to seven points (in the first half), but we never felt like we had control,” Strong said of the defense. “I will just say this, we still have a lot to learn and a lot to improve on.”
Here’s an analysis of each area:
Not much you can say bad about the offense.
Perhaps the star of the offense – and everyone in the locker room admitted it – was the five guys up front. Some of the holes were enormous.
Mario Benavides, Alex Kupper, John Miller, Jamon Brown and Jake Smith were exceptional and dominated the line of scrimmage. Ryan Mack also played a key role, including the fourth-down run on the first drive as an extra lineman on the right side of the line of scrimmage.
“They were great,” Senorise Perry said of the line.
“I hope they buy us dinner,” Benavides said with a smile.
Teddy Bridgewater completed 19 of 21 passes for 232 yards and no interceptions. His two incompletions were one he threw away and another that he was just a little low on a pass to Eli Rogers. But other than that he was flawless.
“He’s a student of the game and it showed out there,” backup Will Stein said of Bridgewater. “He knows the defenses and read them so well.”
Bridgewater hit nine different receivers, including Damien Copeland (51 yards) and Andrell Smith (46 yards) for four apiece. DeVante Parker had three catches for a team-high 57 yards. U of L didn’t even have Charles Gaines, who had been slated a starter but wasn’t dressed for the game.
And then there are the running backs.
With Dominique Brown hampered by a tender right knee, Jeremy Wright and Senorise Perry carried the load. Wright had 22 carries for 105 yards and three touchdowns, while Perry carried 19 times for 108 yards and one TD.
“Those holes were huge,” Perry said. “Just huge.”
All in all, it was a marvelous day for the offense. There were 72 plays for 466 yards and Strong pulled Bridgewater late in the third quarter.
Strong said Stein “deserved” to play and he didn’t want to risk injury to Bridgewater.
The defense only allowed 14 points but did give up 373 total yards, including Maxwell Smith completing 35 of 50 passes for 280 yards.
Defensive back Hakeem Smith said the hurry-up offense didn’t catch the Cardinals off guard but they didn’t handle it as well as needed.
“The (U of L) offense took a lot of pressure off us,” Smith said. “We’ve just gotta get settled in. We were a little rattled because of the no huddle. But we didn’t really know if they were going to come out like that. We just need to settle in.”
Strong talked about not getting to Smith and really getting pressure on him and he couldn’t be happy with his three leading tacklers being in the secondary.
Smith led the way with nine tackles and a forced fumble, while Calvin Pryor had eight and another forced fumble. Terell Floyd had 5.5 tackles, one sack, one tackle for a loss and two pass breakups.
A player in the secondary who played well was Jermaine Reve, who ended up with three tackles and a tackle for a loss.
Preston Brown added 4.5 tackles but the defensive line – which is deeper and expected to be better than last season – needs to do an overall better job.
Strong said heading into the week that special teams was a question mark for the team with the only specialist to have played in a game prior to this season being long snapper Grant Donovan, who was flawless in the opener.
True freshman Josh Appleby started the game as the punter, averaging 42 on two punts. Ryan Johnson, a walk-on from DeSales, then punted the other two times in the game and averaged 43.5 yards.
The punt coverage team was solid with Lorenzo Mauldin, Senorise Perry and Jarel McGriff-Culver coming up with tackles on punt team.
The only flaw in the punt team came on The Opening drive of the game when Kai Dominguez fielded a punt inside the 10 and fumbled. Perry recovered the ball at the 1-yard-line for the Cardinals. Scott Radcliff and Dominguez then took the rest of the returns on the night.
McGriff-Culver made the special teams play of the day when he stayed home on the right end, stopping punter Landon Foster on a fake punt.
John Wallace, a redshirt freshman from Central Hardin, booted a 22-yard field goal and made all three extra points. He also kicked two of his three kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks. Appleby had three kickoffs and all three were around the 5-yard-line and were returned by UK.
The Cards did add a two-point conversion on the first touchdown, a pass from Will Stein to defensive end Marcus Smith.
With the on-sides kick, Strong said he warned his team it was coming and noted Terell Floyd needed to “run through that guy and try to make the ball pop loose the next time.”
I know there will be plenty of complaints about pulling Bridgewater when the staff did – and I agree maybe a series too soon – but a win is a win.
And this was a convincing win against Kentucky to start the season. It sets up the Cardinals well heading into a week when they should go 2-0 over Missouri State and was a nice statement against an SEC team on national TV.
The win also came in front of a record crowd of 55,386 on a soggy day at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. The crowd came early and was loud.
All in all, a good day at the office.