NCAA Football Preview - Louisville Cardinals
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From The Sports Network By Ralph Lauro, College Football Staff Writer 2003 SEASON IN REVIEW: There were many questions for Louisville heading into last season, but they were all answered positively with the team's 9-4 overall record and 5-3 mark in conference play. The team did an outstanding job in Bobby Petrino's first year at the helm, including a GMAC Bowl appearance against Miami-Ohio. Petrino's offensive genius helped the program set numerous school records, despite the departure of three-time C-USA Player of the Year Dave Ragone. The Cardinals set the school and conference record for total offense (6,355 yards) and finished fifth nationally with an average of 488.0 ypg. Louisville started the 2003 season with four straight wins before dropping a tough 31-28 double-overtime decision to South Florida. The team rebounded by winning its next three contests all by double-digits. The Cardinals, however, slipped a bit at the end of the season losing three of their last five contests, including a 49-28 setback in the GMAC Bowl. Still, the season was deemed a success and if not for a pair of three-point losses, Louisville may have been crowned C-USA champions. 2004 ANALYSIS: OFFENSE: In 2002, Louisville had one of the top quarterbacks in the conference in Dave Ragone, and his departure left a big hole to be filled. Taking his place was Stefan LeFors, who simply put, led one of the more potent attacks in the nation. LeFors, who threw for 3,145 yards with a .613 completion percentage, led a Louisville offense that ranked 15th in scoring (34.6 ppg) and 29th in passing (260.7 ypg). He was also instrumental in the ground game with 405 rushing yards and three scores. As a whole, the Cardinals racked up an impressive 228.2 rushing ypg with a trio of tailbacks, Lionel Gates, Eric Shelton and Michael Bush, all doing an exceptional job. All three tailbacks return to the fold this season, giving the Cards the most dangerous backfield in C-USA. Gates, a strong runner with good speed, highlighted the group with a team-best 817 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. Shelton, a power back, missed three games last season but still managed 790 yards and 10 scores. As for Bush, he is the most versatile of the bunch having lined up at quarterback, wide receiver and running back last season. He finished with 503 rushing yards, six touchdowns and an impressive 6.2 yards per carry average. Louisville is not only stacked at the tailback spot, but also at wide receiver. Returning is All-America candidate J.R. Russell, who recorded 75 catches for a school-record 1,213 yards and eight touchdowns last year. Across from Russell will be Joshua Tinch, as speedy and talented receiver. Tinch, who is perhaps the team's toughest competitor, caught 26 passes for 401 yards and a score in '03. The biggest improvement from the 2001 season to 2002 was the team's offensive line which allowed 33 fewer sacks. The group also helped the Cardinals set the school mark for rushing yards in a season and average 5.7 yards per carry. Three starters on the line return from a year ago, All- Conference performers in Travis Leffew and Jason Spitz. Leffew has made 26 straight starts and is one of the more athletic linemen on the squad, while Spitz has started 14 straight games at weak guard and is one of the toughest and most skilled players up front. The other returning starter is Renardo Foster, who was named to the C-USA All-Freshman squad. DEFENSE: If the Cardinals hope to have even better results this season they will need their defense to improve greatly. The unit allowed 27.8 ppg last year and ranked 93rd in total defense (428.6 ypg). Eight starters are back which should only make the defense better. The strength of the unit comes up front where three starter return. Heading the group is defensive end Marcus Jones, who led the team with 10 sacks and 17 TFLs last season. Jones was also fifth on the team in tackles (62) helping him earn Second Team All-conference honors. Bobby Leffew (37 tackles) and Montavious Stanley (13 TFLs) will accompany Jones on the defensive line. Perhaps the weakest position on this side of the ball is linebacker. This group returns two starters in Robert McCune and Brandon Johnson. McCune earned All-C-USA honors in '03 with a career-high 143 tackles, while Johnson posted 50 stops and three sacks. As for the secondary, it returns three starters in Antoine Harris, Brent Johnson and Kerry Rhodes. Harris, who converted from wide receiver to corner last season, posted 51 tackles and three interceptions. Johnson emerged at the strong safety position last season, finishing second on the team in tackles with 116. As for Rhodes, he is a solid free safety who recorded a career-high 82 tackles in his first season as a starter last year. SPECIAL TEAMS: Punter Brent Moody will resume his duties this season after averaging 39.5 yards per kick last season. However, the team must replace the school's top placekicker, Nate Smith. Slated to take over that job is Arthur Carmody, who is a former prep All-state performer with an accurate leg. Todd Flannery is another player with potential for placekicking duties with his strong leg. Broderick Clark, who was slowed by injuries last season, is set to do handle kicks in the return game after finishing second in the nation in return yards per game in '02. OUTLOOK: The Cardinals have been one of the more successful teams in C-USA over the years and this season should be no different. The offense should be just as good as last year behind slinger LeFors. Whether the team wins the C- USA title will depend on its defense which should be improved from a year ago. With an easier schedule than in '03, look for the Cards to win a ton of games and perhaps the league crown.