The final score was a sizable margin and a glance over the stats from Louisville's 35-7 win over Missouri State on Saturday afternoon would display a collection of impressive performances. However, it wasn't the overwhelming victory that many were expecting.
The offense was effective. Behind a balanced attack, it gained over 400 yards for the second consecutive game and was a perfect 5 for 5 in the red zone, but it often appeared out of sorts.
The defense displayed improvement from week one. The Cardinals held the Bears to 249 yards of offense, including just 99 on the ground, but it struggled to apply pressure in the opposing backfield.
“I am very pleased with the victory [Saturday], but what is frustrating is that we played hard but we did not play smart," said University of Louisville head coach Charlie Strong after the win.
Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater remained accurate with the ball, connecting on 77% of his 39 pass attempts. The sophmore continues to spread the ball around, too. Against Missouri State, Bridgewater connected with 10 different receivers, including 8 in the first quarter alone.
“He is a really great football player," said Strong. "He has been able to get better week by week. He is placing the ball in the right spots and the receivers are catching the ball."
Through two games, Bridgewater has completed 81.7% of his throws and has yet to have a pass intercepted.
While the passing game remained effecient, the offense appeared a step slower, which played a role in a number of penalties.
"It is all about your mindset when you go play," said Strong. "I just do not think these guys had the right mind set to go play for 60 minutes.”
That being said, the Cardinals still racked up 475 yards, including a career-high 344 passing yards by Bridgewater.
After missing the season-opener, wide receiver Charles Gaines saw his first action of the season and performed well. The redshirt freshman led the team with 73 receiving yards. His 55 yard catch was the longest of the afternoon.
The tight ends proved to be effective in the end zone, as both Ryan Hubbell, a junior college transfer who made his U of L debut, and Nate Nord hauled in touchdown passes from Bridgewater.
Following his team's season-opening win over rival Kentucky, Strong stressed the importance of improving on the defensive side of the ball, more specifically, forcing more three and out situations. The Wildcats converted 7 of 13 third down attempts, allowing the opposing offense to remain on the field longer than desired.
"We just did not get off of the field on third down," the third-year head coach said last week. "[W]e’ve just got to do a better job getting off the field on third down."
On Saturday, the Cardinals defense kept Missouri State's offense in check, allowing the Bears to convert just 4 of 13 third down situations.
“We were able to communicate better and get everyone lined up," said safety Hakeem Smith, who finished with 6 tackles.
The safties continue to lead the way. Smith and Calvin Pryor have led the team in tackles in both outings this season. The two combined for 14 solo stops against Missouri State. Pryor also recorded the team's first interception of the season when he grabbed a Ashton Glaser pass at the Cardinals 15-yard line.
"Calvin, each week, is getting better and better," Strong said following the win.
Defensive end Lorenzo Mauldin had arguably his best outing as a Cardinal. The sophomore totaled 3 tackles and recorded his first career sack.
Mauldin's sack was the lone sack of the game, which reflected how little pressure the defense applied to the Missouri State backfield.
"We have to do a better job of containing the quarterback and when we get opportunities, we have to be able to finish and make the tackle,” Strong said.
Kicker Matthew Nakatani and punter Ryan Johnson highlight the play of the special teams.
Nakatani took advantage of the opportunity to play and connected for a 45-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter. He also converted a 19 yard attempt for the games first points.
Johnson placed all three of his punts inside Missouri State's 20 yard line, all with no return. He averaged 43 yards per punt.
It's difficult to gain a true judgement from a game against an FCS opponent, but there are key indicators.
The team displayed a lack of focus or intensity, often a sign of a youth-filled team, causing unforced errors and unable to find a consistent rythm. While potentially a slight concern, the Cardinals still controlled the game as expected. One could say it was a let-down following a rivalry game, but if so, it was a pretty decent performance for a let-down.
Louisville will host North Carolina next Saturday.