LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- There are, it is said, three little words that warm the hearts of defensive players and coaches everywhere.
If you're a University of Louisville football fan, you didn't hear those words too often last season. The Cardinals had their moments -- seven times they held UConn to three-and out. In no other game did they send an opponent off with three plays and a punt more than four times (Southern Miss).
In Sunday's season-opening 49-7 win over Ohio, the Cards did it five times.
Linebacker Preston Brown said he's not sure what the defense's goal is for three-and-outs, but he knows that if the Cards' defense wants to hurt their opposing defenders, sending them right back out onto the field against Teddy Bridgewater and Co. is the way to do it.
"If we can do that, and let our offense go to work on people, that's a big weapon," Brown said. "The faster we get them out on the field, the faster the offense can start wearing them down, and the more aggressive we can be when we come back out."
When asked about the three-and-out phenomenon this week, Cardinals' coach Charlie Strong related it directly to stopping the run.
"What we preached the whole time versus Ohio is that we had to stop the run," Strong said. "We did a good job of loading the box and guys staying in their gaps.
"The first play of the game we called a cowboy stunt, when you bring the corner off the edge and we stopped them for a one- or two-yard gain," Strong added. "The backer was standing clean, someone was always standing clean no matter if it was a backer or safety. This is was we tried to preach to them all the time, just do your job and someone is going to be clean in our defense and then go allow that guy to go make the hit."
More often than not, that player was outside linebacker James Burgess, or middle linebacker Preston Brown. Defensive coordinator Vance Bedford talked this week about "protecting" Burgess, or keeping offensive linemen from getting to the second level to allow him to use his speed to go make plays.
The emphasis on stopping the run was particularly evident on first down.
Last season, U of L allowed nearly four yards per carry on first down (3.91). On Sunday, the Cards held Ohio to an average of two yards per carry on 16 first-down runs.
That's a significant number. U of L hasn't given up fewer than 3.3 yards per carry since its Orange Bowl season. The Cards gave up 4.8 yards per first-down carry in 2007.
But with an average of second down and eight after those runs, Ohio already was faced with play-calling challenges to stay out of third-and-long.
And with U of L jumping out quickly to a 14-0 lead (after two three-and-out Ohio series to open the game) the Cardinal defense was able to be even more aggressive with its defensive play calling.
The other pregame defensive emphasis for the Cardinals was to limit big plays. They gave up three of them. But at least in the case of the first-team defense, whenever it had a miscommunication and gave up a chunk of yardage, it gathered itself and forced a field-goal attempt.
"Big plays are going to happen," Brown said. "Last year, we got our heads down and didn't always respond the best way. But we're a more mature team. What you don't want to do is get on your heels. If they get a big play, you have to keep attacking, and we're getting better about that."
While Bridgewater and the offense grabbed much of the attention Sunday, the Cardinal defense made its own strides. Strong now wants to see if his defense is disciplined enough to maintain its first-game momentum.