LOUISVILLE (AP) — Louisville’s defense got the job done and the No. 23 Cardinals won their season opener.
Nonetheless, some aspects of the unit’s performance in the 32-14 win against Kentucky give Cardinals coach Charlie Strong pause.
Louisville gave up 373 yards, including 280 passing — numbers that ultimately didn’t affect the outcome with the Cardinals’ offense rolling up 466 total yards and scoring seemingly when it wanted to.
But the Wildcats’ no-huddle sets forced the Cardinals to react and contain rather than consistently pressure Kentucky quarterback Maxwell Smith.
Two sacks, two fumble recoveries and allowing just 93 rushing yards offset things some, though not enough to satisfy a unit used to having its way. The Cardinals feel like they have several things to improve on Saturday at home against Missouri State.
“We just could’ve played better,” Strong said during Monday’s news conference. “I just expect more, maybe because I’m a defensive coach and I’m around the defense a lot. But I expect us to get off the field more and I expect more from the defense.”
He was referring to Kentucky’s third-down success, especially in the first half when the Wildcats converted six of eight opportunities. Despite stalling on the opening drive, the Wildcats quickly moved into Cardinals territory and scored on the second drive to close within 8-7.
However, the Wildcats couldn’t match the Cardinals’ quick pace or ground game that mounted three long scoring drives to open the game and build a 22-7 halftime lead. But Kentucky kept plugging away with their underneath game and moved the ball downfield.
Louisville’s defense improved as the game went on, holding Kentucky to just one of five on third down conversions. That effort helped clinched a second consecutive victory against its in-state rival and the Governor’s Cup.
Some aspects remained the same for the Cardinals, whose run defense finished the game just under last year’s 10th ranked average (100.5) while they held the Wildcats to two touchdowns. Strong was also happy his defense didn’t give up the deep ball.
But the Cardinals didn’t push Kentucky back either, and getting a better rush was Louisville’s postgame theme.
“We never felt like we had control,” Strong said after the game. “They were able to take the ball up and down the field. We were not able to get pressure. Kentucky was smart; they were able to come with the three-step game and get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands quickly. We came with pressure, but we were just never able to get pressure.”
That was something the Cardinals planned to focus on, junior strong safety Hakeem Smith said.
“We gotta get settled in,” said Smith, who finished with 10 tackles. “We were a little rattled because of the no-huddle. We have to focus more. We practiced against the hurry-up, but we really didn’t expect them to come out like that.”
Louisville expects more of the same from Missouri State, which trailed at No. 22 Kansas State just 16-9 after three quarters on Saturday before the Wildcats exploded for 35 fourth-quarter points. The Bears totaled 418 yards, including 257 by Ashton Glaser on 22-of-44 passing.
Missouri State’s ability to stay that close for that long on the road was concern enough for Louisville, though not as much as allowing Kentucky’s passing game to get going. But having survived the no-huddle without a lot of damage, Strong was ready to move on and said the issue now is getting players in the right place.
He had no complaints about the run defense, which stiffened up to hold Kentucky to just 30 yards in the second half and force the Wildcats to throw. That strategy played right into the Cardinals’ hands and adjustments that kept those short routes from turning into long gains.
From their view, that’s a good base to build on.