Fresh off a 7-6 debut season with the Louisville Cardinals, Charlie Strong had his work cut out for him this year. Louisville returned only 3 offensive starters and 6 defensive starters this season. According to Phil Steele, Louisville was the least experienced team in the Big East and second to only Auburn in the entire FBS. Louisville played like an inexperienced team early in the season as they opened just 2-4. To make matters worse they also accumulated losses to Sun Belt (FIU) and Conference USA (Marshall) schools. Louisville found themselves down the stretch as they finished 5-1 in the regular season including an upset of a ranked West Virginia team. Once again Louisville finished out the season 7-6 under Charlie Strong but this time they posted a 5-2 conference record (vs 3-4 in 2010). We caught up with Mark Ennis, co-manager of Big East Coast Bias and co-host of The Two Man Game on ESPN 680 in Louisville, to get his take on the 2011 version of the Louisville Cardinals.
CFBZ: Louisville went 5-2 in the Big East and tied for the Conference Title. What were the primary factors in their success this year?
Mark: Early in the season the biggest reason was the play of the Cardinals defense, particularly the defensive line. Greg Scruggs at end and the young defensive tackles Brandon Dunn and Jamaine Brooks played really well and were stout against the run while providing enough pass rush to keep Louisville from having to blitz so much. The play of the defense was crucial because the offense struggled so much in the first half of the year. In the second half of the season the defense was plagued by injuries and it was the maturation of Teddy Bridgewater and the freshman skill position players like Michaelee Harris, Eli Rogers, and DeVante Parker that gave Louisville’s offense life and propelled them in conference play.
CFBZ: Out of conference, the Cardinals struggled as they went just 2-4. Was there any reason for Louisville performing this poorly out of conference?
Mark: I think Louisville really was just bad matchups for the teams they played when they played them. Louisville had an absurd number of freshmen on the offensive line, at receiver, and in the secondary and when they matched up even with average teams like Marshall and FIU, all of the youth showed. TY Hilton for FIU torched the Louisville secondary and Marshall’s Vinny Curry pushed the Louisville freshmen on the offensive line around. North Carolina was loaded with NFL caliber players on the defense and it was the first game with Shawn Watson calling plays. If you want to put a positive spin on it, Louisville wasn’t blown out in any of those games and had chances late to win the game in each case. And the Cardinals beat Kentucky.
CFBZ: What is the lasting memory you will have of this season?
Mark: Easily the lasting memory of this season will be the Cardinals going on the road and winning at West Virginia. The game came just a week after the messy realignment battle where West Virginia was ultimately chosen over Louisville to be the 10th member of the Big 12. West Virginia senator Joe Manchin went on a Morgantown radio station and told Louisville to ‘go home and toughen up a bit’ before trying to match up with West Virginia. Early in the game week, Louisville decided to not bring cheerleaders out of safety concerns. Louisville won the game despite being outgained and allowing Geno Smith to throw for over 400 yards. It was a gritty win and the lasting memory of it will always be Adrian Bushell blocking a West Virginia field goal attempt and Andrew Johnson returning it for a touchdown in a silent stadium, then stopping to blow kisses to the West Virginia cheerleaders. After the game, Charlie Strong crowd-surfed the Louisville team in celebration.
CFBZ: Heading into the off-season what are the biggest concerns about this team for 2012?
Mark: I think the biggest concerns are at defensive tackle. Louisville has just three scholarship defensive tackles returning, so they’ll likely move one defensive end that keeps growing (BJ Butler) to a three-technique tackle position and then have to press freshman DeAngelo Brown into duty instead of allowing him to redshirt. After that, Louisville will likely have to rely on star freshmen signees at inside linebacker, too. Dexter Heyman has started for the past two years in the middle and has been one of the real leaders of the team for the defense. With him gone, Louisville signed two US Army All-American linebackers in Nick Dawson and Keith Brown, as well as another pretty highly rated linebacker in James Burgess. Burgess and Brown are both already enrolled and will have a chance to play right away. Dawson will when he arrives in the fall as well.
In a non-personnel sense, the biggest concern will be how Louisville handles no longer being the underdog. I’ve seen Louisville in some preseason top 25 rankings and virtually everyone expects them to be one of the favorites to win the conference in 2012, so how will they handle having some expectations instead of really having nothing expected of them in their first two years under Charlie Strong. In 2010, they were just Kragthorpe’s kids and Charlie was making the most of them. In 2011, they were the second youngest team in the country and again, he was just making the most of them. Now, his system is in place, there’s plenty of talent and experience, and the coaching staff has stayed intact. How will they handle that?
Previous 2011 Exit Surveys
ACC- Clemson Tigers, Duke Blue Devils, FSU Seminoles, Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, Miami Hurricanes, North Carolina Tar Heels, NC State Wolfpack, Virginia Cavaliers, Virginia Tech Hokies, Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Big Ten- Iowa Hawkeyes, Michigan Wolverines, Michigan State Spartans, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Northwestern Wildcats, Ohio State Buckeyes, Penn State Nittany Lions, Purdue Boilermakers, Wisconsin Badgers