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Louisville Eyes First Victory at Mountaineer Field

West Virginia has won six of last seven in series

November 3, 2011
By JIM ELLIOTT , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

MORGANTOWN - Louisville is doing it with defense these days.

It's the specialty of Charlie Strong, the Cardinals' second-year coach.

''Charlie Strong has been as well-respected of a defensive coordinator as there's been in the profession for the last two decades,'' West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. ''The guy's won two national championships and has been a part of some good programs being the defensive coordinator. That tells you something.''

Article Photos

West Virginia University quarterback Geno Smith (12) doesn’t run the football often, but when he does it can result in a play like the one celebrated here — a game-winner against Rutgers.

AP Photo

While stopping others from scoring hasn't been much of a problem for Louisville, which has yielded just 16.2 points and 295.63 yards per game (12th nationally), scoring remains an issue.

The Cardinals have not given up more than 24 points; nor have they scored more than 27. Defense is keeping them in games.

''It's hard to move the ball on them,'' Holgorsen said.

It's been just the opposite with high-scoring West Virginia lately. In six quarters against Syracuse and Rutgers, the Mountaineers defense gave up 80 points before blanking the Scarlet Knights in the second half last Saturday.

To put that in perspective, it took foes, on average, nearly six full games to score 80 points on last season's Mountaineers.

West Virginia has been able to offset that with the Big East's best offense, one that averages 482.1 yards an 38.6 points per game.

''It's going to be a good test for our defense,'' Strong said. ''They have the No. 1 offense in the Big East and Geno Smith is the top offensive player in the Big East.''

Strong went on with his praise of Smith, noting that he can keep plays alive with his feet, too. That was the case against Rutgers last week - Smith scored his first rushing touchdown of the season - but it hasn't been the norm this season under Holgorsen's watch.

There's suddenly a new scouting report on him.

''I don't know why,'' Smith said. ''I've probably had about three carries this entire year. If it's there, I'm going to take it but never am I going to be a guy who might run as my first option. I'm going to stand back there as much as I can and make the throws and good reads.''

Louisville, which is 2-10 all time against West Virginia and has never won in Morgantown, has had an up-and-down season that is on quite a peak at the moment. After opening with a victory against Murray State, the Cardinals lost four of the next five (one to Marshall) before rattling off a pair of conference victories that have left them tied for second place in the Big East with West Virginia and Pitt at 2-1.

''It's been a long time since we had won back-to-back conference games,'' Strong said.

The last time that happened was 2006, when they went 11-1 and won the Orange Bowl after ripping off three straight league victories against UConn, South Florida, and Pitt two head coaches ago (Bobby Petrino). That was also the last time the Cardinals beat West Virginia. The Mountaineers have won four straight in the series.

Doesn't matter. Holgorsen's never seen parity like he's seen in the Big East this season.

''The Big East is the most competitive conference I've been in,'' he said. ''Period. From top to bottom, it's the most competitive conference I've been in - within the conference.''

Strong said Louisville's recent rise has a lot to do with young players maturing along with a heart-to-heart he had with his team nearly three weeks ago.

Sitting at 2-4 and in danger of losing another season, Strong's message was this: You've done it your way. Now we're going to start doing it our way as coaches.

Victories against Rutgers and a Syracuse team that was riding a wave of confidence after it walloped West Virginia a week earlier, have followed.

Even with that maturation, Strong's not 100 percent sure they're ready to win a game in a place like Morgantown. Those last two victories came at home.

''Our backs are against the wall going into the environment that we're going into it,'' he said.

Statistically, freshman quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who has five career starts since taking over for an injured Will Stein, has completed 95 of 150 passes for 1,029 yards and seven touchdowns against six interceptions.

Strong simply wants him to manage the game at this point, and he's improved at that in recent weeks.

Three players - Jeremy Wright, Vic Anderson, and Dominique Brown (a backup QB who is in on a lot of direct-snap stuff) - all average between 37 and 41 yards per game on the ground. Anderson, who was on WVU's radar as a high-schooler, is coming off a 93-yard effort in which he surpassed 2,000 rushing yards for his career last week.

The leading receiver is redshirt freshman Michaelee Harris, a high school teammate of Bridgewater, who has 26 catches for 356 yards and a pair of touchdowns.