Who The Heck Is Pitt Playing: Louisville Edition

Next up is a visit to the land of Papa John's pizza (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Three previews left. Next up is a visit to the Bluegrass State

Who the heck is Pitt playing? The Louisville Cardinals

When and where are we playing? Papa John's Cardinal Stadium in Louisville, Kentucky on November 12th. Kickoff is TBA

Why should I care? A Big East game on the road.

Have we played these guys before? Yes. Pitt won the last game in Pittsburgh 20-3. The all-time series is tied 7-7 and is tied 3-3 since Louisville joined the Big East. Pitt currently has a three game winning streak.

What conference do they play in? The Big East

How did they do last season? 7-6 highlighted by a win over Southern Miss in the Beef O'Brady's Bowl. Louisville also beat UConn and Syracuse.

Who's the coach? Charlie Strong, formerly the defensive coordinator at Florida. He has a career record of 7-6 at Louisville and is in his second season.

How many starters return? Four on offense, seven on defense, one kicker/punter

What's the offense like? Louisville runs out of a spread offense in Strong's regime. The Cardinals, like every one else in the Big East except for Cincinnati in 2010, were average on offense last season, finishing 71st in total offense at 369 yards/game. The Cardinals were the best rushing team in the Big East, gaining 175 yards/game on the ground. But while the Cardinals were good on the ground, they were not so good through the air, averaging 194 yards/game, which was 79th. Scoring wise, Louisville scored just over 26 points/game. 

The quarterback position loses Justin Burke and Adam Froman, two players who had bounced around as starting QB for Louisville. In their place, the starting QB will be Will Stein, who has thrown for 522 yards, a score, and a pick in his career in Louisville - the majority of those numbers coming in Steve Kragthorpe's final season two years ago. So there is some experience, which will help considering the large turnover in the offense. His backups will be Teddy Bridgewater, a freshman, and Dominique Brown, a sophomore, in that order. Bridgewater was a highly touted recruit in this past recruiting class, so I expect that he will see playing time sooner rather than later. But the QB position is a concern, mostly due to, like much of Louisville's offense will be in 2011, a lack of experience.

The running backs lose their star in Bilal Powell, but return Victor Anderson, a senior, who after breaking out in his freshman season regressed the past two seasons (more or less due to injury) and Jeremy Wright, a sophomore. These two are listed as the primary running backs, although I feel Wright should be the starter. He averaged 5.5 yards per carry in his freshman season and while it was only on 59 carries, he still had four TDs, which was four more than Anderson, who clearly hasn't been the same after a spectacular freshman season in 2008. Other backups include sophomore Senorise Perry, redshirt freshman Kamal Hogan, and true freshman Corvin Lamb. But with a 1-2 punch like Anderson and Wright, you wonder how much playing time these three are going to get - especially at the end of the season when Pitt and Louisville meet. Regardless, the Cardinals should be set at this position.

Wide receivers, like the running backs, lose their leading receiver, but overall the unit has potential. The Cardinals lose Cameron Graham and Doug Beaumont, now in the NFL, but do return two solid players in Andrell Smith and Josh Bellamy. Rounding out the starting lineup will be redshirt freshman Michaelee Harris. If we're projecting stats for 2011, look for each of these receivers to put up similar stats. In 2010, the separation between the leading receiver (Graham) and the #4 receiver (Smith) was 93 yards. So there won't be one receiver like a Jon Baldwin who will be the main target on passing plays, but rather a multitude of very capable receivers, which makes the unit dangerous if Stein can get the ball to them. Other receivers to watch are sophomore Jarrett Davis and true freshmen Eli Rogers and DeVante Parker. At tight end, the starter will be Josh Chichester, who started in the bowl game after getting some starts at WR throughout 2010. Chichester is also a decent receiver in his own right, catching 22 balls for 317 yards and five scores so he also figures to be a big part of the Cardinals offense.

The offensive line is the area to watch on offense. The starting lineup returns only one player from last season, C Mario Benavides, who started every game for Louisville in 2010. As with most teams, the success of the offense lies with the offensive line. Can the Cardinals get enough protection to allow Stein to get the ball to his receivers? Can they block well enough for Anderson and Wright to break through for big gains? This all remains to be seen, but it will be something to keep an eye on as the season progresses. The starting lineup outside of Benavides will be junior Alex Kupper at LT, freshman John Miller at LG, redshirt freshman Jake Smith at RG, and senior Ryan Kessling at RT.

As I just said, the offensive line will determine whether Louisville's offense is effective or not. Charlie Strong has been one of the better recent coaching hires after taking the train wreck that was Louisville football under Steve Kragthorpe and turning them into a bowl team so I like Strong to get his offense working and performing well on game day.

Ok, now what about the defense? Louisville will work out of a 4-3 defensive scheme. Charlie Strong knows defense, obviously, after being the defensive coordinator for Florida when they won two national titles, and it showed last year where Louisville was 14th in total defense. Obviously, there's a catch as most of that was against Big East offenses and I'm not going to go into, once again, how bad the conference was on offense. But regardless, the Cardinals allowed 311 yards/game and I don't care if you're playing Sun Belt teams, that's still pretty good, especially in Year 1. Where Louisville really got to teams was through their passing defense. Louisville allowed 167 yards through the air, which was 9th in FBS, just behind Syracuse for best in the Big East and limiting teams to a 54% completion rate. The Cardinals also recorded 39 sacks. What hurt Louisville was its rushing defense, which allowed 144 yards, 52nd in FBS. Another area of "concern": turnovers. The Cardinals only forced 19 in 2010, which, while decent, was a little disappointing coming from a defensive guru like Strong. I'm going to chalk that up to it being the first season under Strong, so I expect Louisville to get even better in his second year, which should worry every Big East team.

The defensive line was Strong's area of specialty  with the Gators and it continues to be so at Louisville. While there's not a whole lot of game experience, there is plenty of talent and depth .,, depth being the key with this line. Starting at the end positions will be seniors William Savoy and Greg Scruggs, but other players like sophomores Marcus Smith and B.J. Butler will also see plenty of game time. While the interior of the line struggled in 2010, the expectations are that the experience playing against major competition will pay off in 2011. Junior Randy Salmon and Brandon Dunn are the starters, but Roy Philon, who saw plenty of starting time in 2010, will also see the field. The coaching staff is also very high on redshirt freshman Jamaine Brooks.

The linebackers also will be strong in 2011, thanks in part to returning senior Dexter Heyman, who started seven games for Louisville in 2010. Heyman will be the middle linebacker, where he spent most of his time in 2010. Also returning to the starting lineup will be junior Daniel Brown on the weakside. The Cardinals do lose starting strong side linebacker in Brandon Heath, but in his place will be sophomore Preston Brown, who played well in the times he saw the field in 2010. His play will be key if Louisville wants to shore up its rushing defense in 2011.

There are a few questions in the secondary. Louisville loses both cornerbacks Johnny Patrick and Bobby Burns, who played very well in 2010. The two players set to replace them as starters, senior Anthony Connor and redshirt freshman Jordan Paschal, will have to really step up in order to replace the talent lost at these positions. Connor did miss all of 2010 with an ACL injury, so the question is his health. Should either not play as well as hoped, there are plenty of younger players who will benefit from the game experience, including freshmen Andrew Johnson and Charles Gaines. At safety, the problems are non-existent, thanks to returning starters at both positions. Hakeem Smith at SS and Shenard Holton at FS were the two leading tacklers for Louisville in 2010 and are all-Big East candidates in 2011 after breaking out last year.

The defense does return seven starters, which is always a good thing. The concerns at cornerback are there, but other than that, there's a lot to like about this defense under Charlie Strong, who will have the unit even better this season. That is great news for Louisville considering how explosive the offenses in this conference should be in 2011.

What about special teams? Louisville does return punter and placekicker Chris Philpott, a senior, as well as return men Victor Anderson, Jeremy Wright, and Josh Bellamy.

Prediction? Many are predicting a worse record for Louisville in 2011, but I am not one of them. I like the Charlie Strong hire and the defense should be great this season. The question is on offense and if the line manages to 1) stay healthy and 2) play well, the play on offense will be well enough for the Cardinals to win at the very least six games. As for this particular game, this is one game that I have marked as a loss for the Panthers. A tough road environment and a team that many people are underrating. It'll be a close game, but Pitt always drops a game to a team that they have more talent than (see UConn in 2010, NC State in 2009, Bowling Green in 2008 ... need I continue?). I think this will be that game, with the Cardinals winning 27-24.

Stats are from the NCAA. Information about Louisville's starters comes from their first depth chart.

More information on the Cardinals can be found at SB Nation's Louisville site, Card Chronicle

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