Dec. 30, 2006
MIAMI (AP) -Louisville co-defensive coordinator Mike Cassity's challenge to his players is simple.
"It's like I tell'em, they're going to make 'SportsCenter' one way or the other," Cassity said.
Maybe, but only after getting through Louisville's offensive highlights first. Given the way the fifth-ranked Cardinals put points on the board, that could take awhile.
Louisville enters the Orange Bowl on Jan. 2 against No. 15 Wake Forest ranked in the top 10 in the country in every major offensive category, a luxury that Cassity knows gives him a decided advantage when it comes to putting a game plan together.
"It's a lot easier for me to dial defenses up when we're averaging 49 points a game," Cassity said with a laugh.
The Cardinals' high-powered attack has turned coach Bobby Petrino into one of the most coveted offensive minds in college football and made a star out of quarterback Brian Brohm.
It's also made it easy to forget that the Cardinals can play a little defense too. Though it lacks the star power and highlight friendly sexiness of the offense, Louisville's defense has spent the last few years evolving into an efficient, no frills unit that's starting to attract the same quality players that Louisville's offense has been enjoying for the last few years.
Not that anybody's noticed, of course. At least nowhere outside of Louisville, anyway. Then again, it's something senior strong safety Brandon Sharp has gotten used to over the years.
"Being in the shadow, that's not bad for me, that only makes me go harder," Sharp said.
Fewer teams in the country have gone harder than the Cardinals this season. Louisville is second in the nation with 41 sacks, not bad for a unit that lost 2005 Nagurski Award winner Elvis Dumervil and his school-record 20 sacks last season to the NFL.
Dumervil was so dominant last season the Cardinals could afford not to blitz even though he spent most games battling through double and triple teams.
Knowing they no longer had the kind of dynamic player that could take on three blockers, Cassity and co-defensive coordinator Kevin Wolthausen spent the offseason putting together various blitz packages that has turned Louisville's defense into one of the nation's most democratic units.
Louisville's 41 sacks are split between 17 different players, including little-used role players like freshman defensive tackle L.T. Walker and junior linebacker Preston Smith. No player has more than eight sacks and eight have at least two, proof that Cassity and Wolthausen's "one for all" message has gotten through to their players.
"I really think its the warrior from within," said defensive tackle Amobi Okoye, a second-team All-American and the closests thing the Cardinals have to a defensive star. "We don't get as much print as the offense gets or anyone else gets. Each and every one of us knows we have to make a difference."
Even if they have to do it in relative anonymity.
"I think its like that everywhere," said linebacker Nate Harris. "The defense always gets a little passed over."
But not, apparently, on the practice field, where Harris said the defense puts together some of its best work.
"We like coming in underdogs, so every time we go against the offense in practice, we try to establish ourselves," Harris said. "We know if we can stop our offense, we can stop anybody in the nation."
And in the rare cases this season when the Cardinals defense needed to be the difference, they made the big stops. In fact, Louisville's two most important plays of the season may have come when Brohm and company were watching from the sidelines.
The Cardinals were clinging to a six-point lead against Cincinnati on Oct. 14 when the Bearcats drove deep into Louisville territory. But cornerback Gavin Smart knocked down a last-second toss into the end zone on the game's final play to preserve a 23-17 victory.
Two games later, the Cardinals were ahead of West Virginia by just two early in the third quarter when linebacker Malik Jackson returned a fumble 13 yards for a touchdown that propelled Louisville to a 44-34 victory.
Important plays? Sure. The kind that dominate highlight shows? Hardly. But the Cardinals know they'll have a chance to show Wake Forest and the nation on Tuesday what they've known all season.
"This year we showed them we've got both offense and defense," said cornerback William Gay. "We want to be known now as a team, just a Louisville team, that's dominant."