Louisville's game at Florida International Saturday will be a homecoming for 34 members of Charlie Strong's 18th-ranked team. While the Cardinals will have plenty of family and friends in the stands at Alfonso Field, Strong and his players say they'll be focused on the task at hand - avenging a 24-17 loss to the Panthers last season at PJCS.
Teddy Bridgewater returns to Miami to face FIU
For the nearly three dozen south Florida natives on Louisville's roster, this weekend's game in Miami won't be a vacation trip home to see family and friends; it's strictly business for the undefeated Cardinals.
“What’s going to be positive is their families are going to be there, so at least we feel like we’re going to have a little crowd because of the number of players we have from south Florida," Strong said. "I have some time blocked out for them to see their families, but this is a business trip."
Louisville sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is excited about heading back to Miami to play against his hometown school. Bridgewater, who is being mentioned in the Heisman discussion for his early season play, is one of five players from Miami Northwestern on Louisville's roster. Bridgewater, who originally committed to Miami, signed with the Cardinals after Randy Shannon was fired two years ago.
"We don't want to let any outside distractions get in the way," Bridgewater said. "Even though it's our family, our main goal right now is to win the next football game. Going home doesn't play a factor. We're going down there to play football. It's not a vacation. My main goal is to win a football game. If I see my family, I'll see them. But right now it's all about football and this university. When this is your job you have to make sacrifices. We want to go down there, execute and come out with a victory. Then we'll celebrate."
Bridgewater and the Cardinals haven't forgotten the sting of losing to FIU last season at home. The Panthers upset UofL last season primarily because of three huge plays - a 71-yard interception return; and 74 and 83-yard touchdown passes from Wes Carroll to T.Y. Hilton. Though Carroll and Hilton are now gone, Louisville still has plenty of respect for their Sun Belt Conference opponent.
"I remember seeing a team that came here and sucked the breath out of us," said Bridgewater, who didn't play in the game last year. "They defeated us on our home turf and it's something that we want revenge on."
Sophomore wide receiver Eli Rogers, Bridgewater's high school teammate, did play last year against FIU. He says that loss provides he and his teammates plenty of motivation this weekend.
"I remember being hurt after the game and them celebrating in front of us on our home field," Rogers said. "It's been a big motivation for us. I'm trying to push the whole team to practice hard this week and play hard in the game."
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“We’re not really worried about last season. We have a totally different mentality," said senior tight end Nate Nord, another of the Cardinals south Florida natives. "FIU is obviously a talented team. They have 10 guys coming back from a team that beat us and went to a bowl game last year, so we know we’re going to get all we want from them. They’ll be ready to play. Coach (Mario) Cristobal is doing a great job down there as far as recruiting in that area. We know we’re going to get a tough game Saturday.”
After opening the season with three straight wins at home over Kentucky, Missouri State and North Carolina, Louisville hits the road for the first time this season. The Cardinals have been successful on the road under Strong, going 7-4 the past two seasons away from PJCS. The key to Louisville's road success? Stingy defense and a mentally tough approach.
"Like Coach Strong says, you have to pack your defense on the road," said Bridgewater. "When you go on the road you've got to deal with fans and momentum swings. As long as the defense holds their own good things will happen."
Louisville hits the road trying to, 'bounce back' from a 39-34 win over UNC. After jumping out to a 36-7 halftime lead vs. UNC, Louisville fell apart in the second half and nearly lost to the Tar Heels. Strong said afterwards that uneven performance felt like a loss to his young team. Still, Louisville enters Saturday's game with an unblemished record and could improve to 4-0 for the first time since 2006.
“You can look at all the positives and negatives that happened during the game – all the good things we did, all the bad things we might have done – but at the end of the day, we made enough good plays to win the game, and we’re 3-0 now and we’re moving forward," Nord said. "[Sunday] was basically a practice to correct mistakes, little mental errors we may have had during the game. I thought the morale was pretty good. Everybody’s pretty much looking forward to the next game. There wasn’t too much talk on what had happened Saturday.”
After dominating UNC offensively in the first half, Louisville mustered only 3 points in the second half against the Heels, while give up four touchdowns.
"We shot ourself in the foot. We had some costly sacks and execution errors," said UofL offensive coordinator Shawn Watson. "I think with a young football team we felt the pressure of, 'wait a minute, something goofy is happening.' It was kind of the whole team - we had special team errors, defensive errors, offensive errors. So we didn't help ourselves out on any side of the ball."
Watson's offense will look to put their poor second half performance in their last game behind them against an FIU defense that is allowing 39 points per game and ranks 82nd nationally in total defense. Despite their subpar half against UNC, Louisville's offense has been highly productive this season.
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"They are a well coached team and play with a lot of energy," Bridgewater said. 'They have a lot of experience and return most of their starters from last year's defense. So those guys have chemistry."
The Cards average 35 points and 467 yards per game. Bridgewater, who has thrown for 855 yards and five touchdowns, has completed 82 percent of his throws and is spreading the wealth to a deep and talented receiving corps.
"Teddy uses all five weapons," said Watson. "The way we are built, we attack coverage. If there is something in a specific type of coverage, he can work one side of the field or the other. He is using everything right now. This was his best game in terms of decisions."
Seven Louisville players have caught seven or more passes this season, while Jeremy Wright and Senorise Perry both rank in the Top 50 nationally in rushing yards. The main reason for Louisville's balance and diversity on offense: Teddy Bridgewater.
"He was rock-solid in his decision-making [against North Carolina]," Watson said. "He didn't make many mistakes. He actually had two burnt passes and two dropped passes in his incompletions, so if you do the quick math, he had a really good day. He had two incomplete passes."
Though FIU's defense has disappointed early this season, the Panthers offense still appears dangerous despite the departures of Carroll and Hilton. FIU is averaging 29 points and 420 yards per game. The Panthers have a balanced attack, averaging 183 yards rushing and 237 passing yards per contest. FIU QB Jake Medlock is a dual-threat who has thrown for 711 yards and four touchdowns and also is third on the team in rushing.
"They still have some good players," defensive coordinator Vance Bedford said. "(Wayne) Times is the T.Y. Hilton for them this year. He is playing really well. I'm concerned about him and tackling him in space. He is a very shifty guy if he catches the ball."
"They're no-huddle. That's the new thing right now. We've gotten adjusted to it and playing better. We're going to see a lot of no-huddle this year so we've got to get ready for it and play smart when we see those things."
Louisville safety Hakeem Smith ranks second with 19 tackles and says the key will be containing Medlock and wide receiver Wayne Times.
"They have a quarterback who is going to try and make plays with the ball," said Smith. "He is a big key. They have a receiver [Times] that we have also have to key, and the quarterback likes to get the ball to him."
While Bedford is thrilled his troops won't have to face Hilton, who is playing in the NFL, this season, Louisville's defensive coordinator wants to see his defense continue to improve against FIU. A good starting point for improvement? Allowing fewer big plays.
"We need to make more plays. We need to make more tackles for losses, quarterback sacks and interceptions," said Bedford. "Right now being 3-0 I'm excited. We have a long way to go, we have a lot of improvement to make, but long-term I think we have a chance to be pretty decent this year.
"You look at Kentucky, we give up one play of 22 yards, they threw the ball 51 times and we only gave up 14 points. Missouri State had one big play - seven points. We gave up four big plays in the last game and they scored four touchdowns. So if we can continue to cut down on the big plays our chances of winning are going to continue to improve as long as our offense keeps rolling like they are rolling, which they're doing a great job right now."
FIU's leading rusher Kedric Rhodes is doubtful for Louisville.
Louisville OL John Miller, CB Adrian Bushell and WR Charles Gaines are probable for FIU.
Louisville RB Dominique Brown, who missed the Cardinals first three games with a knee injury, is questionable against FIU.
Date: Sept. 22; 7:00
Radio: 84 WHAS
Location: FIU Stadium
Surface: Field Turf
Series Record: FIU leads 1-0