CRAWFORD: U of L offense dries off, takes off to beat Pitt - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD: U of L offense dries off, takes off to beat Pitt

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PITTSBURGH (WDRB) -- Turns out, all the University of Louisville football team needed was to get back on dry land.

Minus the monsoons, the Cardinals' offense resumed the regularly scheduled programming that was interrupted at halftime of their victory over North Carolina nearly a month ago, scoring 24 straight points to spark a 45-35 victory in their Big East Conference opener at Pittsburgh.

Through two rain-soaked wins and a half of football against North Carolina that was geared more toward protecting a big lead than attacking, the U of L offense appeared water-logged, and national perception of the team was wishy-washy.

Before Saturday's game at Pitt, ESPN labeled the Cardinals as an "upset alert" on all platforms, and the players noticed. Not that they needed ESPN to get their attention.

Charlie Strong ran practice with a one-song playlist last week -- Aretha Franklin's "Respect." Now, deduct points for originality. Every team since that song has been recorded has claimed it at some point. But there's a reason the classics are called classics.

The message hit home.

"I'm so tired of hearing that song," U of L center Mario Benavides said after the game.

Offensive coordinator Shawn Watson explained.

"Honestly I don't think a lot of people know how good we are, because we kind of milled around," Watson said. "I don't blame them. We told the kids -- and that's one thing about this program, you get the truth -- we told them, 'Guys, we've had six bad quarters of football, before the monsoon. Take the monsoon out of the equation.' They wanted to fix themselves, and that's a long wait."

U of L's offense looked fixed from its first touch. After the Cardinal defense gave up a long TD drive to open the game, U of L marched down and scored on its opening drive for the fifth time in six games.

"We were anxious to play," Watson said. "As you guys know, the last two weeks that we've played have been very frustrating, and then we had to sit out a bye week. We just never felt like we got a chance to be us because of the conditions at Southern Miss, and the week before we were very unhappy with the way we played. We felt like we played six inconsistent quarters of football, and we have a higher expectation of ourselves. . . .

"We came out and really moved the football. We just had one drive that we screwed up (in the first half), and that was me, I wasn't in a good rhythm. I was trying to set some things up and I should've just let them play and do their deal."

When the Cards' offense is doing its deal, it dictates the terms of the game. It takes away the luxury of opposing offenses to be multi-dimensional, and gives the Cardinals' defense a cushion that actually can allow it to be more aggressive.

U of L's defense did not have a good first half. Pittsburgh moved the ball at will on its first drive and, after blocking a punt and recovering it for a touchdown, drove nine plays for 59 yards and a TD late in the first half.

The feel of the game seemed to change, however, after a U of L punt, and a four-down series of stops by the Cardinal defense.

Bridgewater found DeVante Parker for a 27-yard completion, and U of L kicked a field goal before halftime to pull within 21-17.

In the locker room, U of L coach Charlie Strong said he had "a few choice words," for his team. Benavides said it was R-rated. "You'd have to bleep most of it out," he said.

Lorenzo Mauldin said he turned to his defensive players and said, "What's the hold up? You guys don't have any fire."

Said Strong, "I had to get them going. That was the only way it could happen."

It didn't hurt that on the first play of the second half, Bridgewater found DeVante Parker streaking down the left sideline for a 75-yard touchdown pass. The deep ball had been there in the first half, but Bridgewater had missed Parker on a couple of tries.

"The very first one he missed, Teddy corrected himself," Watson said. "He's an easy fix, because he's such a student of things. He told me what he did wrong. He actually took that off a deeper drop than what he should have. He should've taken a quicker drop, but he fixed it, and that's why he's such a great player."

That pass got the Cardinals going, and the U of L defense responded to what Strong had said during halftime. Pitt's first drive of the half lasted only four plays, and the next two went three-and-out.

That's all the daylight U of L's offense needs. Bridgewater hit Eli Rogers for a diving completion on U of L's second drive, 29 yards on third down, and followed it with a 35-yard strike to Parker.

"The deep balls were there all game and when the big plays are there you've got to take them, you can't miss too many opportunities," Bridgewater said. "It's a good feeling when you know the game can change with one play. DeVante is finding himself again. He's been battling through some injuries and he's finally recovering.

". . . Just being able to go out and throw it to those ball-fetchers, it's a great feeling. Being able to go throw it around the ballpark was fun. That catch by Eli, it reminded me of one he had in high school."

In fact, it was Rogers' reception that let Watson know his offense was really heating up.

"I told Eli that ignited us," Watson said. "That was a great catch. A great read by Teddy. The ball placement had to be leveraged there and he made an unbelievable catch."

The Cards gave up two fourth-quarter touchdowns, and seem to get a bit conservative offensively once Pitt pulled within 38-28 with 12:41 left in the game.

But junior running back Senorise Perry took care of that -- breaking loose for a 59-yard run late to put the Cards up 45-28, before Pitt scored a TD against U of L's prevent.

It capped a career day for Perry -- 12 carries for 101 yards and four touchdowns -- and all that despite suffering bruised ribs in the first half and being held out for a time. He became the first U of L player to rush for four TDs in a game since Michael Bush did it against West Virginia in 2005.

After coming into the game with only five sacks all season, the Cardinals registered five in the game against Pittsburgh quarterback Tino Sunseri, including a couple that can be credited to good coverage. Eight different U of L defenders had at least a piece of a tackle behind the line of scrimmage. Lorenzo Mauldin earned a start at defensive end and responded with five tackles and 1.5 sacks. Brandon Dunn registered a career-high six tackles.

"The big thing we need to do on defense is trust each other," Mauldin said. "Do your job, and trust that other guys are going to do theirs. That's what we did better in the second half."

Sunseri said U of L used its lead in the second half to tweak its defensive approach.

"The guys were really thinking and played the situation really well and were taking away stuff that usually we could take downfield," he said. "Dropping eight guys underneath and forcing us to make plays. Whenever it's third and 10 or third and nine, you can dump the ball off and get six, seven yards, but you're still three yards short. I think that's what their plan was, to dump everybody off and make sure that we forced the ball down, make us play behind the stakes and try to make people miss."

Bridgewater wound up hitting on 17 of 26 passes for 304 yards and a touchdown. Parker caught four passes for 153 yards -- the first time a U of L receiver had more than 150 yards receiving since Patrick Carter had 154 against Utah in 2007. Jeremy Wright carried 13 times for 62 yards.

It matched the most points scored on a Pittsburgh team since 2009. Whether it will be enough to stop Aretha Franklin's "Respect" or a lack of it, from creeping into U of L's practices, nobody's sure.

"I don't know, because that's all what people say outside, you can't control it," Bridgewater said.

Benavides wasn't worrying about respect.

"It feels great to beat Pitt, since I've been here we haven't beaten Pitt home or away," he said. "I don't know if we played a complete game, but I will say this is our best second half of the season."

Bridgewater said he won't even mind if he keeps hearing Aretha in practice.

"That's one of my favorite songs," he said. "I'm an old-school guy."

QUICK KICKS:

-- Strong said he left defensive end B.J. Dubose home because he didn't practice well this week. "It's our standards," Strong said. "If a guy doesn't practice well, then I just make a decision. If you don't want to practice well, then you don't deserve to go, and just stay home and rest up and we'll see you on Sunday."

-- The Cards are 6-0 for the first time since 2006.

-- U of L is only 2-6 in Big East openers, a stat Bridgewater cited in his postgame remarks.

-- Bridgewater's 304 yards were the second-highest total of his career. He is 11-5 as U of L's starting QB.

-- Guard John Miller missed the game with a leg injury. Junior Kamran Joyer made his second career start in his place.

-- U of L had 13 rushing touchdowns all last season. After rushing for five on Saturday, the Cards' season total now stands at 17.

-- Senior LB Daniel Brown missed his second straight game with a knee injury suffered against FIU.

-- Freshman LB Keith Brown made his first career start. Safety Hakeem Smith made his 31st straight start.

-- Kicker John Wallace's 45-yard field goal in the second quarter was a career long, and he's now 5-for-5 on field goals this season.

-- U of L had a second punt blocked this season, but junior LB Champ Lee blocked his first career punt when he got a piece of one in the third quarter.

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