Defense must improve for Cards to beat 'old school' Cats

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) -- While Louisville's offense is one of the most productive in the country, coach Scott Satterfield hasn't hesitated to point out that the Cardinals' defense isn't up to snuff and needs a lot of work, which could be a huge problem against Kentucky in Saturday's Governor's Cup at Kroger Field in Lexington (noon, SEC Network).

UofL has built its 7-4 overall record and 5-3 Atlantic Coast Conference mark primarilyby relying on its explosive offense to outscore opponents -- for instance, 41-39 over Boston College, 62-59 against Wake Forest and 56-34 over Syracuse last Saturday.

When the Cards have been unable to score at least 30 points, they have lost, and Kentucky hasn't given up 30 points since falling to Georgia 34-17 on Nov. 3, 2018, a span of 15 games. The Cats are allowing 28.2 ppg this season, 18th in the FBS.

National rankings tell the story about the Cards' woeful defensive unit:

Points allowed per game--34.5, 104th.

Rushing yards--183.2, 86.

Passing yards--256.3, 105.

Total offense--453.4, 102.

Kentucky will be the third-best scoring defense the Cards have faced all season, behind Clemson (T2) and Notre Dame (16), and they scored a total of 27 points in those two games. The Cats are also the fifth best scoring defense they have played (1-3 record vs. previous four) and the fourth-ranked total defense (0-3).

There's more: UK is 3-0 against teams with defenses ranked No. 100 or below in yardage allowed per game and 2-0 vs. opponents ranked 100 or below in scoring defense.

Even against the offensively challenged Wildcats -- who are 95th in scoring at 26.6 ppg -- those kinds of numbers don't bode well for UofL's chances to avenge last year's 56-10 embarrassment, avoid its third loss in the series in the last four years and reclaim the Cup.

The Cards surrendered 263 yards rushing and 5.0 yards per play against Syracuse, which ranks 10th in the ACC in rushing at 151.6.

That brings us to an important question. In preparations for UK this week, was it realistically possible to fix such a long-term deficiency as that generous defense? Probably not, Satterfield admits. At this point in the season, you are what you are.

"I don't think you're going to make a ton of improvement in the course of a week," Satterfield said. "We have to just do some things as coaches to help our guys and put them in better positions to make plays."

Satterfield says part of Louisville’s problem against Syracuse’s rushing attack was gap integrity -- in layman's terms, not being in the right spots on particular plays so that there were numerous missed tackles.

“When you’re not fitting right it’s pretty easy to get some big yards,” Satterfield said. “When we didn’t fit right, we didn’t make the tackle. We better be where we need to be versus these guys or they'll certainly make you pay."

UK's top four rushers are all averaging more than five yards per run and the Cards' task is complicated in that quarterback Lynn Bowden Jr. is even more of a running threat than the running backs.

Bowden, a converted wide receiver who will be starting his seventh game as the signal-caller after injuries to the top two QBs, has gained 951 yards while averaging 7.4 yards per carry. Asim Rose is next, with 724 yards and a 5.5 average, followed by Kavosiey Smoke (534 and 5.6) and Chris Rodriguez Jr. (390 and 7.0).

"They're an outstanding running team," Satterfield said. "The one that's playing quarterback now is an outstanding athlete. It's been pretty amazing to see. You put a wide receiver at quarterback and they've still been very effective moving the football."

Last year Bowden was catching passes against Louisville -- he had six receptions for 86 yards and two touchdowns in Cardinal Stadium. He's throwing passes this year, but not many. He has completed just 28-of-60 (.467) for 326 yards and two touchdowns.

It should be easier to contain such a one-dimensional offense, but Satterfield says that isn't the case with the Cats.

"If you just have a running back, and the quarterback isn't a threat running the football, then you can really sell out wherever the running back goes," Satterfield said. "But now what they're doing is kind of splitting the defense in half. The running back goes one way and the quarterback goes the other and you must have guys on both sides.

"So it creates more gaps you have to defend, a little bit more space, and they're good enough athletes to make you miss in space. They don't throw it much, but they do keep you honest with a lot of vertical routes. Teams know they're not throwing it very much at all and still can't stop them. That's pretty impressive."

Satterfield calls it "old school football."

"They're doing a good job controlling the clock with their running attack and then playing good defense," he said. "Hopefully, we'll do a better job defensively when we come out on Saturday."

If not, it could be a long day for the Cards watching the Cats march up and down the field.


Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college football and basketball for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at 0926.russ.brown@gmail.com.


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