GAME NOTES: Yet another contender from the American Athletic Conference will take a shot at eighth-ranked Louisville when the Cardinals battle the UCF Knights in a game with major conference implications at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.
UCF is storming into this game with just a single three-point loss to South Carolina on its ledger. Other than that setback the Knights have been extremely formidable, with a 4-1 overall record that includes a marquee win on the road over Penn State. UCF might have been looking past its game last week, as it was nearly upset by Memphis in its AAC opener. However, the Knights scored a pair of touchdowns on fumble recoveries in the final 2:05 to escape with the win and keep the stakes high for this matchup.
Last week Louisville took a real hit against conference rival Rutgers, who like UCF, was one of the teams thought to have had a chance at unseating the conference favorite Cardinals. Though they took home the victory, 24-10, the Cardinals moved back to No. 8 in the national rankings and now have some questioning their credentials as a top 10 team.
UCF head coach George O'Leary isn't one of those people.
"(Louisville) could beat a lot of teams in this country," O'Leary said. "I think we overrate a lot of conferences in this country. There's two or three teams, maybe four at best, that deserve the adoration they're getting. The rest are just teams."
With a 6-0 record entering play and wins in its last eight games dating back to last season, Louisville is clearly a formidable foe to O'Leary and the Knights.
This is the first meeting between these teams as conference foes and just the second all-time. In the first matchup, during the 1985 season, Louisville rolled to a 42-21 victory over the then Division II Knights.
If UCF hopes to stun the Cardinals it will need to get back to the offensive success it had earlier this season. Against Memphis the Knights had just 270 total yards and 16 first downs. Overall this season the Knights are averaging 31.8 points, 19 first downs and 414 total yards per game.
Blake Bortles is considered one of the best quarterbacks in the AAC and for good reason. Bortles has completed 64.8 percent of his pass attempts for 1,334 yards and nine scores, while being intercepted just three times. However, Bortles did not look as efficient against Memphis. He threw for just 160 yards, completing less than 50 percent of his pass attempts (17-of-36).
When Bortles is on, Breshad Perriman and Rannell Hall tend to put up big numbers. Perriman (18 receptions, 397 yards, TD) makes the most of his chances with an impressive 22.1 yards per reception average. Perriman was leaned on heavily last week as he had seven catches for 107 yards. Hall (21 receptions, 373 yards, three TDs) has two 100-yard games this season and leads the team in receptions. J.J. Worton (13 receptions, 177 yards, three TDs) has had a diminished role of late with just one catch for two yards in the last two games.
In terms of running the ball, the Knights could do a lot worse than starting running back Storm Johnson. On the year, Johnson has reached the century mark in a game just once, but he still has 455 yards and seven touchdowns on 87 carries. Johnson leads the AAC in both carries and rushing touchdowns.
The defense has seen very little let up for the Knights. UCF is allowing just 16.6 points and 353 yards of total offense per game. In fact the Knights are allowing fewer points than any team in the conference other than the Cardinals. The ability to create turnovers has been a positive trend for UCF, which has forced 12 takeaways.
For the first time this season Teddy Bridgewater looked less than comfortable in the win over Rutgers. Though he threw for 310 yards and with two touchdown passes, extended his streak of games with a passing score to 18, Bridgewater posted his second-lowest efficiency rating (166.58) of the season and was also intercepted for just the second time. Bridgewater (125-of-176, 1,872 yards, 18 TDs, two INTs) should continue to post strong numbers going forward but may have another rough time against UCF.
"I think that we have raised his standard," Louisville head coach Charlie Strong said about Bridgewater. "I think that he plays up to where we want him to play at. For a quarterback, the standard is high, because the ball is in their hands."
That is especially true with injuries taking a toll on his receivers. Last week leading wideout DeVante Parker (21 receptions, 375 yards, six TDs) was sidelined with a shoulder injury. Parker is listed as questionable again this week, as is Kai De La Cruz, who had three catches for 56 yards and a score in his first start. Those injuries mean Damian Copeland (23 receptions, 379 yards, three TDs) will be called on to carry the load, perhaps even more than last week when he had eight catches for 115 yards.
The running game might also get a bit more work than previous weeks. That should be just fine with the talented backfield trio of Senorise Perry (402 yards, five TDs), Dominique Brown (271 yards, two TDs) and Michael Dyer (220 yards, two TDs). Perry was a major contributor last week with 104 yards and a score. Brown led the team in rushing the previous two weeks.
What has been overlooked about Louisville this year has been how stout it has been on defense. The Cardinals rank second in the country in total defense (229.5 ypg), while leading in points allowed (7.3). Heavy pressure from the likes of Lorenzo Mauldin (seven sacks) and Marcus Smith (six sacks) have allowed the Cardinals to keep opponents at bay. In fact, after posting eight quarterback takedowns against Memphis, the Cardinals are third in the country in the category (23.0).
"We're going to bring a lot of pressure. We're a pressure team, " Strong said of his team's success in rushing the passer.
As the year continues to go on the Cardinals will be expecting every team's best shot. UCF's best will be a difficult challenge for the Cardinals, who showed some signs of weakness against Rutgers. However, Bridgewater is too good to be hampered for another week, even without some of his key receivers. Even some slowing from the offense shouldn't hurt the Cardinals too much at home with Smith and Mauldin pressuring Bortles. Expect another grueling game in which the Cardinals prevail.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Louisville 28, UCF 20