LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- So what to make of this University of Louisville football team now?
The No. 20-ranked Cardinals beat winless Connecticut 31-10 on Friday night in chilly Hartford. The score was a bit deceptive.
U of L was in control throughout, no mistaking that. The Cardinals were never in danger. But the Cardinals' offense accounted for only 17 of their points, the second fewest managed against UConn this season (South Florida had only 13). Central Florida beat this same UConn team 62-17 and rolled up 527 yards of offense. U of L had 369 yards and only 81 -- a paltry 2.7 yards per carry -- on the ground. Dominique Brown was the Cards' leading rusher with just 29 yards on 9 carries.
There were dropped passes -- a full handful of them. Bridgewater's numbers, 21 of 37 for 288 yards and a TD, were hurt by the drops. The Cards were flagged 12 times for 101 yards in penalties. And there was a palpable lack of energy at times from a team playing on national television, even if it was in front of a sparse crowd in freezing conditions.
"It wasn't very clean," U of L coach Charlie Strong acknowledged afterward. "We were able to get away with a win. But you had too many penalties. We didn't play smart. We dropped too many balls on offense, and defensively we started slow and they were able to keep a drive going early with a penalty, then we got the takeaway. I'm very pleased with the defense. I know we gave ups score there late but we had guys in the game who had not played. We need to play better, be smart and disciplined. When we do that, we'll play a complete game, which we did not do today."
By game nine, a team is what its stats say it is. The Cardinals have one of the nation's best quarterbacks in Teddy Bridgewater, and a bona-fide Sunday standout in wideout DeVante Parker. But they do not run a fast-paced offense, and the running game has stalled behind an offensive line that has not been dominant.
Defensively, the Cards have been dominant against their American Athletic Conference competition. But they've also faced three of the eight lowest-scoring teams in major college football (UConn, South Florida and Florida International) in their past six games.
Still, Charles Gaines was a bright spot. He had a score when he blocked a punt and ran it in, then added an interception later in the game. Terrell Floyd made a circus catch of a ball batted five or six times before returning it for another score. U of L is getting, at last, the kind of big plays Charlie Strong wants from his defense and special teams. Defensive end Marcus Smith, with
Maybe, considering the setting, a bit of a flat effort was to be expected. A winless opponent. A cold night. A sparse crowd. Yet this was a team at the beginning of the season that said it would not judge itself in relation to its opposition, but in relation to its own potential.
On offense, it's tough to accept that this team is performing to its potential.
It's playing well enough to beat bad teams badly. And it is outscoring opponents 75-6 in the first quarter. But next week will offer a test for the Cards. Whether Houston beats Central Florida or not, it is a hot team, and will be by far the best offensive team U of L has seen all season, ranking No. 11 nationally in scoring headed into its game at Central Florida on Saturday.
No matter what happens with the Cougars and UCF in Orlando, Houston and head coach Tony Levine, a former U of L staffer, have the talent to beat Cardinals themselves, whether there's a BCS bid on the line or not.
This Louisville team was one that was expected to play with great passion and relentless effort.
It has been evident in spurts. But as the season winds down, it's time to show that next-level ferocity are dwindling.
As far as stages go, next Saturday against Houston would be a pretty good time to turn it on.