Photo courtesy of Louisville Athletics
PITTSBURGH, Pa. (Sports Network) - Coming off a bye week, the No. 18 Louisville Cardinals finally open their conference schedule with a trip to the Steel City to take on the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field.
After winning five games in five weeks, Louisville earned a week off this past weekend. The Cardinals are one of two teams from the Big East to be in the top-25 entering the weekend and the only squad to have been there since the preseason. In 2011, the Cardinals went 5-2 in league play to share the Big East title with West Virginia and Cincinnati.
"Every game now is a new season and every game counts from here out," head coach Charlie Strong said about his teams approach off the bye. "We have to improve and have to play better than what we have been playing. All these games coming up are very critical because it's a one game season."
Pittsburgh couldn't overcome an early 14-point deficit in a loss on the road to Syracuse last time out. The loss drops the Panthers to 0-2 in Big East action and 2-3 overall. The Panthers had won back-to-back games before the loss to the Orange, including an upset victory over Virginia Tech. However head coach Paul Chryst is not using that win as the sole template for this matchup.
"I think you draw on (the Virginia Tech game) only in that you draw on all your past experiences," Chryst said. "We need to keep growing, if all we do is keep going back further than one week, and then we're not growing."
This series dates back to 1976 but there have only been 15 total meetings with Pittsburgh holding a slim 8-7 advantage. The Panthers have jumped ahead in the all-time series thanks to a four-game winning streak which is the longest such streak for the Panthers against the Cardinals. Last season Pittsburgh posted a 21-14 decision at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.
A week off may have been just what Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater needed. Bridgewater had seen his total number of completions plummet over the last four contests with the nine he managed against Southern Miss a season low. Inclement weather may have had a hand in the effort but Bridgewater is completing only 57.1 percent of his passes as opposed to an 80.0 percent rate in the first three games. Still Bridgewater's overall numbers this season have been very good with the sophomore throwing for 1,134 yards, eight touchdowns and only three interceptions, while completing a conference best 73 percent of his passes overall.
Along with completing passes with frequency, Bridgewater has also spread the ball around well with nine different players having at least eight receptions and none more than 16. Andrell Smith (14 receptions, 189 yards) leads the team in total yardage thus far.
When Bridgewater has stumbled head coach Charlie Strong has been able to rely on the rushing tandem of Senorise Perry and Jeremy Wright. Perry has rushed for a team-high 458 yards this season, second in the Big East, while Wright has 389 yards (sixth in-conference). Each has also scored five touchdowns on the ground.
Louisville is firmly in the middle of the Big East in defense, ranking fourth in scoring (18.6 ppg) and total defense (321.4 ypg). The squad has also been good on both sides of the ball on third down, converting 56 percent of its attempts, while holding opponents to just a 41 percent conversion rate. The Cardinals have been lacking in creating turnovers and getting pressure. Louisville has only five sacks this season and eight forced turnovers.
Calvin Pryor is the team's leader in tackles (38) and has made a number of plays on the ball with four forced fumbles and an interception. Adrian Bushell has also been able to disrupt opposing offenses, with a team-leading four passes defended and a pair of fumble recoveries.
It may surprise some that Pittsburgh has been the second-most prolific passing team in the Big East this season. The historically run-reliant Panthers are averaging 303.2 yards passing per game this season. Running the show for the passing attack is Tino Sunseri who has had a very good season thus far, completing 69.1 percent of his pass attempts for 1,463 yards and eight touchdowns against only two interceptions.
At the other end of the bulk of Sunseri's passes has been Devin Street and Mike Shanahan. Street has a team-leading 28 receptions for 403 yards and a pair of scores, while Shanahan has caught 25 passes for a team-high 451 yards and three touchdowns.
Just because the passing game has been effective this season doesn't mean head coach Paul Chryst has abandoned the run. Ray Graham has still put together strong numbers with 419 yards on 89 total carries. He is currently ranked fourth in the Big East in rushing (83.8) and the team's leader in yards from scrimmage (541).
Pittsburgh is just above Louisville in total defense this season (320.2 ypg) but trails the Cardinals in keeping other teams off the scoreboard (21.2 ppg). Like Louisville, Pittsburgh has not created a ton of pressure this season with only eight sacks.
Jason Hendricks is third on the team in tackles (27) but has been a terror to opposing passers, recording three interceptions and four passes defended. Shane Gordon (31 tackles, 5.0 TFL) and Jarred Holley (32 tackles) have also been impact players on defense.