Cardinals on the Defensive

PHOTO: Louisville Cardinals defensive end Lorenzo Mauldin (94) sacks Wake Forest Demon Deacons quarterback John Wolford (10) during the second quarter at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium. Louisville defeated Wake Forest 20-10.
Mandatory Credit: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Steve Phillips, Special to

There is no great mystery to Louisville’s success during the first half of its inaugural season as an ACC member. The Cardinals got it done with defense while winning five of their first six games.

The numbers tell a complete story: Louisville leads the nation in rushing defense, allowing just 58.3 yards per game on the ground. Think attacking the Cardinals through air is the answer? Try again. Louisville ranks 12th nationally in passing yards allowed per game (171.8), and safety Gerod Holliman leads the nation in pass interceptions with seven in six games.

It adds up to the nation’s No. 1 overall total defense (230.2 yards allowed per game) and a unit that ranks sixth in points allowed (12.7 per contest).

“Defensively, the biggest word to describe them is aggressive,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “They are very aggressive. “They are top 10 in about every category you can come up with and they have played six games. Stats can be a little bit misleading after one or two games, but this group has played six games.”

Louisville’s seventh game comes this Saturday when they travel to face Swinney’s Tigers in Death Valley. The meeting will be the first-ever between the programs and looms as key heading into the second half of the season.

In addition to a key Atlantic Division victory, the winner will likely secure a spot among the nation’s Top 25 in next week’s rankings (the 3-2 Tigers currently hold the No. 25 spot in the Amway Coaches Poll while Louisville is among the leading vote-getters; both ranked high among teams receiving votes in this week’s AP Poll).

Swinney knows the Tigers’ chances of prevailing could largely depend on how quickly the offense, led by true freshman quarterback and two-time ACC Offensive Back of the Week Deshaun Watson, find some openings against Louisville’s vaunted “D.”

“They are starting to create a little bit of an identity,” Swinney said. “They are very salty, athletic, fast and long guys and do a good job with pressure packages.”
Swinney compares Cardinals pass rusher Lorenzo Mauldin favorable with Clemson All-America defensive end Vic Beasley, and he ranks the Holliman-led secondary as the most aggressive – there’s that (accurate) word again – that the Tigers have faced thus far.

“Again, they are number one in the nation defensively for a reason,” Swinney said. “It shows up on tape when you watch them. They are a big challenge for us. “