LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Coach Charlie Strong is still a little bemused about questions concerning his University of Louisville football defense.
"I guess I don't see all the concerns everybody else has," he told reporters Monday. "You know what has happened here, a standard has been placed on this defense the past two years. . . . I tell our defense all the time, people are saying, you've got to play better, you've got to play better, and we do have to play better. But it's not like we're awful."
That's hardly, however, the motto you'd like for a season. Amid all the concern, Strong's point is that it shouldn't be forgotten that the Cards are 7-0, and that the defense has done the job when it needed to.
What he'd like to see now is for the U of L defense to do the job even when the offense sends it out with a big lead.
U of L has given up 14 passing touchdowns this season. Half of them have come when the Cards have held a lead of 15 points or more. Ten of them have come with the Cards leading by double digits.
Get this. When the Cards are leading by a touchdown or less, opponents are completing 48 percent of their passes. When they lead by 15 or more, it goes up to 70 percent completion percentage. Of the 69 passing first downs U of L has given up this season, 30 have come with a two-touchdown lead or better.
The outstanding site CFBstats.com allows us to check national rankings on those situations. When the Cards' lead is from 1 to 7 points, its pass defense ranks No. 17 in the nation. (And when losing by 1 to 7 points, it ranks No. 2 in the nation.) That's proof this defense gets it done when dialed in.
But look at the same ranking when the Cards are up 15 or more. U of L's pass defense in that situation slips to No. 105 in the nation. (Cincinnati's is No. 104. And, just to demonstrate that defenses -- even very good ones -- often do let up in such situations, Alabama's is No. 106.)
I know what you're saying. Teams throw it more when they're far behind, so you're going to give up more in the passing game. True enough. But U of L, with a lead of 15 or more, is giving up a TD pass on every 12th attempt (7 TDs in 83 attempts). When the Cards are winning by at least 7, or are tied, or even behind, they've given up just 2 TD passes in 78 attempts.
I think the point is made. When it comes to playing with a lead, the defense hasn't exactly clamped down. Strong says that, in part, is a function of maturity, or lack of it.
Certainly, the defense has shown an ability to get the job done when absolutely needed. It had an impressive goal-line stand against South Florida, and stopped the Bulls late when a field goal could have won the game. After allowing North Carolina to come from 29 points down, it made the big play in the end zone late to preserve the win. So it can do the job. Strong just would like to hammer home that when the offense gives the defense a cushion, that doesn't mean it's break time.
"It's all about consistency and just play like that all the time," Strong said. "And we haven't been able to put together four quarters yet on defense. You look at the big (goal line) stop. And then we go in the second half and we're up 21-10 and we allow them to come back. It's all about being consistent and taking responsibility. You look at the goal line stand and say, okay, look at what we can do if we go out and just play. Then and at the end of the game we had to go out and make a stop. So it's there. It's just about taking care of your responsibility."
". . . What we have to get over is when we get a lead and get up on someone it's time to really go play hard instead of backing off. It's not okay to let a team go down the field and score if we're up by 10 or 11. That's the time to lock down."
So it's less defensive ability than timely defense -- and more consistent defense -- that Strong says he's looking to see this week, in addition to improved execution on third down.
The Cardinal defense has a little extra motivation Friday night against Cincinnati. When Bearcats quarterback Munchie Legaux said he's a better player than U of L QB Teddy Bridgewater this week, U of L defensive coaches immediately pointed to the statement as a challenge to the defense.
In fact, in the Howard Schnellenberger complex, there's a copy of the Cincinnati Enquirer blog entry with the quote in question, below the screaming, bold, all-caps headline: "THIS IS DISRESPECTING OUR DEFENSE!!!" That's right. Three exclamation points.
Whether that kind of external motivation will be enough, however, is debatable.
The catch-phrase of the week for the U of L defense has been "gap sound." Strong used it three times during his weekly news conference Monday. The Cardinals were not gap sound against the South Florida rushing game last week. The phrase means what it sounds like. When an offensive front lines up, there are gaps between the linemen. Defensive linemen are assigned to fill, defend or hold those, so they need to be disciplined lest the offensive front open holes to run through, as South Florida did repeatedly last week.
"It was all about just gap soundness," Strong said. " We just weren't taking responsibility. A lot of guys were jumping out of their gaps."
As well, it seems that when coaches try to soften the coverage in situations where they want to avoid big plays, the coverage or approach of the entire defense may get too soft.
Regardless, whether technique or scheme, motivation or concentration, on a White Out night in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium the U of L defense will need to avoid those temporary blackouts to keep its unbeaten record in place.
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