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October 14, 2013

6-0 again, but this feels different




Louisville's football team has rolled to the same record so far that the 2012 club had at the same point in the season, a perfect 6-0. But that may be where the similarities between the two outfits comes to a screeching halt.

At least, UofL coach Charlie Strong believes so, and the statistics back him up.

Going into Friday night's American Athletic Conference battle against Central Florida (4-1, 1-0) in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium on the heels of last week's 24-10 win over Rutgers, the No. 8/6 Cardinals have been a well-balanced team. They have excelled in two of the three phases -- offense and defense -- and have improved their special teams play after a rocky start.

Last season, Louisville won its first nine games before stumbling against Syracuse and Connecticut, but then finished strong with a 20-17 win at No. 25 Rutgers and a 33-23 upset of No. 4 Florida in the Sugar Bowl.

"We're playing at a significantly higher level than last year," Strong said. "We were playing good on offense, but defensively and kicking game we weren't playing good, so the offense was kinda carrying us.

"What's happened this season is all three phases are playing together, and so if one phase isn't playing well the other phase can pick you up, and that's what's great about it. We're just six into it and we want to continue to improve. But now our players know when they play bad, they know they played bad, you don't have to say much to them. They understand responsibility and accountability now."

The most notable improvement from last season has been on defense, with UofL ranking in the top-10 in eight major defensive categories, including total defense, where the Cards are No. 2 in the Football Bowl Subdivision, having allowed just 229.5 yards per game.

UofL leads the FBS in scoring defense, surrendering only 7.3 points per game. It is also second in rushing defense (68.3 upg) and third in sacks (23), tackles for loss (57) and third-down conversion defense (19/79 for 24 percent).

A year ago, through six games, the Cards had given up 18 ppg and 331.2 ypg.

Asked if he would have predicted that UofL would be among the FBS leaders on defense, Strong replied: "No, I would not have thought that. You knew you had to be pretty good, but how good we didn't know. I thought our front seven would be good, but then I lose two big linemen who were big cogs for me inside (sophomore DeAngelo Brown and junior Jamaine Brooks, injuries), so we lost some depth. Keith Brown at 'backer is very athletic and we knew Preston Brown would have a good year for us, and he has.

"I said to Preston, 'You need to take the Sugar Bowl win and apply it to his season' because he played unbelievable in that game. I said, 'I want to see that Preston Brown this season. Then in the secondary I didn't know if we could hold up at the corners, but the two safeties have really helped us. I never thought our defense would be playing at the level they're playing at now."

However, in the spirit of full disclosure, some of the defensive difference can certainly be attributed to a weaker schedule than UofL faced last season. Somewhat incredibly, not a single FBS team the Cards have faced this season can be found in the top 75 in total offense, and most are near the bottom.

The highest-ranked offense is Rutgers (No. 77), while Ohio University is 78th. FIU is next-to-last at No. 122, Temple is 103 and Kentucky is 101.

UofL's defense will be tested more during the second half of the season. Although South Florida (No. 121), UConn (118) and Memphis (94) are offensively challenged and UCF is in the middle of the pack at No. 66, Houston (27) and Cincinnati (37) should provide more of a challenge than the Cards have faced thus far.


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