By Phil Neuffer, Associate College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: The two best quarterbacks in the Big East Conference will duel it out this weekend in the Carrier Dome when Teddy Bridgewater and the undefeated Louisville Cardinals square off with Ryan Nassib and the upstart Syracuse Orange.
After allowing an upset-minded Temple squad hang around early on, Louisville turned on the afterburners and cruised to a 45-17 victory last weekend. The win gives Louisville a 9-0 record for the first time in school history and launches the Cardinals to No. 9 in the most recent BCS standings but just No. 11 in the top-25. As has come to be expected from any head coach, Charlie Strong has largely dismissed the success of his team this season.
"I just look at our program, and we are sitting here at 9-0, and we are still not anywhere near where we should be," Strong said. "We have not talked about this on record and each week our focus has been just on the team we are playing."
Those are some harsh words for a team that is one of just six unbeaten teams left in the country.
Syracuse will be trying to do something Louisville has not had to deal with this season; bounce back from a loss. The Orange traveled to Nippert Stadium and were dropped 35-24 by Cincinnati to put Syracuse at 4-5 overall and 3-2 in conference play this season. The loss broke the longest winning streak of the season for Syracuse which was just two games. Despite losing that momentum the Orange are chomping at the bit for the chance to be the team that can put an end to Louisville's perfect season.
"We know that they are a good team," Syracuse cornerback Ri'Shard Anderson said. "We know that they have good coaches. They don't want to get knocked off but it's a great opportunity for us to knock off a team where we don't have that opportunity all of the time. We are going to get out there. It's our last home game."
This has been a rather even series all-time with Louisville holding just a slim 6-5 edge in 11 meetings, The Cardinals have traveled well in the series with a 3-2 record all-time in the Carrier Dome. Louisville has won three straight against the Orange, including a 27-10 win at home last season.
He has not received the national acclaim that he perhaps deserves, but Bridgewater has been a consistent force for Louisville all season. He has shown composure whether his team is leading by one point or 20. Bridgewater has completed a conference-leading 70.4 percent of his passes this season for 2,434 yards, 18 touchdowns and only four touchdowns. He is second in the conference in passing yards and leads the Big East in passer rating (170.0). Bridgewater was sensational against Temple throwing for 324 yards and five touchdowns on just 19 completions.
The running combination of Senorise Perry and Jeremy Wright got back on track in the win over Temple as well. The pair have rushed for a combined 1,354 yards rushing and 20 touchdowns this season but had failed to run the ball effectively in the two previous weeks. However against Temple the two broke out with Wright finished with 100 yards and a touchdown and Perry adding 79 yards. The Cardinals have 22 rushing touchdowns as a team which is the most by the Cardinals in a season since 2007.
Bridgewater has excelled in spreading the ball around this season with nine different receivers having at least 10 receptions and four of those having at least 20. DeVante Parker (22 receptions, 509 yards, 5 TDs) has been the best big-play threat and leader in receiving yards.
Strong is well aware of the challenges that his defense faces against the Orange who feature the top passer in the conference in Ryan Nassib. Still Strong isn't consumed by stopping the pass acknowledging Syracuse's strength in the ground as well.
"Well, you look at them on offense; they are very balanced," Strong said. "They have a very good quarterback. They do a really good job of running and throwing the football."
Regardless of what the focus is, Louisville will try to continue its upward trend in defense the last few weeks. The Cardinals are now the third best team in the conference in total defense (337.1 ypg) which is excellent news with a battle with the two top defenses in Connecticut and Rutgers on the horizon.
Calvin Pryor (69) and Preston Brown (68) are each flirting with the 70-tackle mark for the season and will more than likely eclipse that against Syracuse.
Syracuse has the great benefit of having a stellar quarterback under center as well. Nassib has really excelled in his senior season, throwing for a conference best 2,773 yards, while completing 63.3 percent of his passes. Nassib is in very select company on the national level, as one of only 15 quarterbacks in the country to average at least 300 passing yards per game.
The consistent play of his receivers has been a huge boost to Nassib's play. Posession-receiver extraordinaire Alec Lemon has hauled in 44 passes for 569 yards and three scores this season. Lemon became the fifth player in Syracuse history to total 2,000 yards receiving in a career after pulling in seven passes for 101 yards last weekend. Lemon has not been the most productive receiver though. That honor belongs to Marcus Sales, who has team-highs in receptions (50), yards (722) and touchdowns (7). Jarrod West (37 receptions, 523 yards) has also been a reliable target.
Strong was right about the Syracuse offense though. There is strength in the running game as well. Jerome Smith has been the major source of that strength with 731 yards on 146 carries this season, both team-highs. Smith is more of a downhill runner, while Prince-Tyson Gulley (383 yards) provides a nice change of pace.
While Syracuse may be able to go blow for blow with Louisville's offense, the defense is another matter. Syracuse is not one of the premier defenses in the conference (369.4 ypg) and is currently tied for second to last in the Big East in scoring defense (26.1 ppg). The Orange do have an advantage though in creating negative plays, as they lead the conference in tackles for loss (67) this season.
Brandon Sharpe (!2.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks) and Dyshawn Davis (50 tackles, 9.0 tackles for loss) have been the most dominant players in getting in the backfield and disrupting opponents' rhythm. Lead-tackler Shamarko Thomas (66) has done a bit of everything, with three tackles for loss, a pair of interceptions and three forced fumbles.
Louisville must tread lightly in this game. As the season draws to a close each game for the Cardinals becomes more and more important. Against a Syracuse team that will be able to match up with the Cardinals, playing on the road becomes even more dangerous. Still, Louisville has simply found ways to win this season and until proven otherwise it should do it again.