While the season didn’t go quite as well as the Louisville Cardinals hoped it would, there’s still plenty of reason to look forward to their Russell Athletic Bowl matchup with the Miami Hurricanes on December 28. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater could be playing in his final college game for the Cardinals before taking his talents to the NFL and Louisville will get a taste of what awaits them next season as members of the ACC where they will see the Canes much more often. The key for the Cardinals in this game will be their defense keeping a lid on the Miami offensive attack and the big arm of Stephen Morris.
While a lot of the press this season surrounding Louisville was spent on Bridgewater, the Cardinals boasted the No. 1 defense in the AAC and one of the toughest units in the country. Against the pass, they ranked No. 8 in college football allowing just 171.7 yards per game through the air and gave up just eight passing touchdowns all season long while picking off 16 passes. They enjoyed the No. 5 ranked passer-rating against in all of FBS with an average of just 99.55. They were led by their ball-hawk in the secondary, Charles Gaines, who posted five interceptions on the season with one returned for a touchdown.
Most importantly, however, is the lack of big gains Louisville allowed this season. On the year, they gave up just 77 passing plays over 10 yards, second fewest in college football this season. By keeping a lid on opposing offenses, they forced teams to work their way down the field, running a “bend but don’t break” defensive philosophy to near perfection. Minimizing explosive plays gives the defense more opportunities to come up with a stop or for the offense to make a mistake and it has been key to the Cardinals’ success this season.
Against Miami, it will be extremely important to keep the big plays to a minimum. Morris struggled at times this season making all the throws he needed to, completing just 58.7 percent of his passes, but he excelled throwing the deep ball. He set a personal best this season with a 9.0 yards per attempt average as he threw for 2,868 yards with 21 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. With big-play threats on the outside like Allen Hurns and Stacy Coley, Morris is always looking to stretch the field and hit a quick-strike score over the top.
Louisville needs to minimize those kinds of scores and force Morris to make the tough intermediate throws into tight windows. That’s where he has struggled this season and where Louisville has made things difficult on opposing quarterbacks. If they can force the Miami offense to work their way down the field and not allow the over-the-top home run plays that have been the key for the Canes’ offense in 2013, Louisville will have a huge advantage in the Russell Athletic Bowl.