LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Louisville players have frequently talked about measuring up Saturday against North Carolina, figuratively and literally.
The Tar Heels are big and long.
They are the biggest opponent the 19th-ranked Cardinals have faced this season. The shortest player on the Tar Heels’ offensive line stands 6-foot-4 and UNC also features a trio of 6-7 blockers upfront. North Carolina’s receivers also have a distinct height advantage over Louisville’s starting secondary.
Then there’s North Carolina’s defense. It’s anchored by 6-3 tackle Sylvester Williams, who passed on entering last spring’s NFL draft to return for his senior season.
Louisville’s no slouch size-wise and showed at times during last year’s loss in Chapel Hill that it could maneuver around the massive Tar Heels. Still, the Cardinals acknowledge the challenge looming ahead, and in many cases, over them.
“I don’t think about it too much because we’ve just got a game plan,” said Louisville junior defensive end Marcus Smith, who had three sacks at Carolina last year. “I’m just ready to go against these big guys.
“They’re really big, (but) you can really run around these big guys. (We’ve) just got to get ready.”
Defensively, Louisville’s first two games have been a mix of encouragement and concern. It struggled in the opener against Kentucky’s no-huddle set, allowing 373 yards and rarely getting pressure on Wildcats quarterback Maxwell Smith.
The Cardinals improved as expected last week against Missouri State, holding the Bears to 156 yards through three quarters in a 35-7 rout. But the defense also had moments of vulnerability against the spread offense and still hasn’t generated the push that Cardinals coach Charlie Strong wants.
The upside is that both teams prepared Louisville for a fast-paced game that could help against a big North Carolina squad also playing a quick tempo under first-year coach Larry Fedora. The Tar Heels ran 82 plays last week and are averaging 78 snaps through two games.
But the Tar Heels are still a work in progress, demonstrated by last week’s 28-27 loss at Wake Forest in North Carolina’s ACC opener. The Tar Heels rallied from a 21-14 halftime deficit with 13 unanswered points, but then allowed the Demon Deacons to drive 93 yards for the winning touchdown late.
“There’s still things happening (that) we have to polish up and make some decisions on whether we cut things out that we don’t think we can get done or not,” Fedora said. “The proof will be in the pudding Saturday of whether we have those missed assignments or not.”
Their main question is whether 5-10 sophomore tailback Giovani Bernard, who rushed for 1,253 yards and 13 touchdowns last season, will play after sitting out last week with a minor knee injury.
If he can’t, sophomore A.J. Blue is ready for another fill-in appearance. He rushed for 106 yards and a touchdown, while freshman Romar Morris added 70 and also had a TD.
“I think that’s what it’s all about: being the next guy to step up,” Blue said. “Fortunately, both of us did and we handled it well and it opened up an opportunity for us in the future. … I’m a big fan of Gio. I want him back just as much as anybody else would want him back.”
That adds to Louisville’s agenda, which includes getting through North Carolina’s offensive front bookended by 6-7 tackles James Hurst and Brennan Williams, along with right guard Travis Bond. Receivers Erik Highsmith (6-3), Jherani Boyd (6-2) and Sean Tapley (6-1) could create a lot of work for Cardinals cornerbacks Adrian Bushell (5-11) and Terell Floyd (5-10).
Yet the Cardinals insist the Tar Heels are no different from what they’ve seen already.
“It doesn’t affect us because we go against tall guys every day,” said Louisville 6-2 free safety Calvin Pryor. “We just know that if we use our technique, that will take care of everything.”
Louisville’s up-tempo offense has thrived as well, and Saturday will mark the second time around for sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater against North Carolina. He has shown he’s definitely in a comfort zone, having completed 81.7% of his passes for 576 yards and two TDs.
Bridgewater has involved several players in the offensive attack and ranks 12th nationally in passing efficiency (173.31) and 26th in total offense (299.5). And he has the aim is to keep it up against North Carolina’s pressure.
While Louisville players say there’s no doubt that size matters, they also believe their execution could cancel that out.
“Their D-line is always good,” 6-6 Cardinals tackle Jamon Brown said, “but (offensive line coach Dave Borbely) stresses our experience. We had a lot of inexperienced guys at different positions last year but he’s confident in what we have, and we (have it) too.
“We know what we have to do and will try to execute that on Saturday.”