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November 4, 2011

The pressure is on Cards' defense

Louisville's defense is ranked among the nation's best in several major categories in the FBS, having allowed two touchdowns or less in six of its eight games and being one of only two teams that hasn't surrendered more than 25 points in a game (the other is Alabama).

Now the Cardinals (4-4, 2-1) will face their biggest challenge of the season when they try to slow West Virginia's wide-open attack, led by quarterback Geno Smith, at noon Saturday at Milan-Puskar Stadium in Morgantown.

"As always, West Virginia is very, very explosive," UofL linebacker Dexter Heyman said. "They're a team that can hang 50 or 60 points on you if you let them. One thing we've struggled with this year is eliminating the big play and that's something we have to do against them. We're going to have to strap on our boots and go in there and play one of our best games."

Here's the short version of WVU's offensive firepower:

The Mountaineers rank No. 13 in the FBS in total offense at 482.13 yards per game and seventh in passing yardage (354.88) and has three dangerous playmakers in Smith and wide receivers Steadman Bailey and Tavon Austin.

Smith ranks fifth nationally in passing yardage at 339.4 ypg in WVU's spread attack and is seventh in total offense (332.4 ypg). He has completed 63 percent of his passes for 20 touchdowns, with only five interceptions.

Austin, a junior, leads WVU with 56 receptions for 691 yards and three touchdowns and ranks eighth in the country in punt returns with a 14.5-yard average. He also returns kickoffs, with his 180.5 all-purpose yardage average ranking fourth in the FBS.

Bailey, a sophomore, averages a hefty 19 yards per catch, with 43 receptions for 815 yards and seven TDs. Five other receivers have double-digit receptions, including sophomore Ivan McCarney's 37 for 475 yards and three TDs.

"They're so explosive," Strong said. "Austin and Bailey, they get the ball in those guys' hands and they're just so fast they outrun people. They take a 5-yard hitch route and turn it into a 65-70-yard run.

"Geno has been starting for two years and he has a really good feel for the game. He sees the blitz coming, he can move his feet and get away from it. Plus, he can beat you with his feet because he can scramble and then make the throws. The thing you have to do with him is keep him corraled in the pocket and don't let him outside because his really big throws come then."

Through its seven games, West Virginia has gone three-and-out to punt only 11 times and it hasn't happened more than twice in any game. The Mountaineers had just one three-and-out against No. 1 LSU's outstanding defense in a 47-21 loss on Sept. 24.

"It's going to be a great challenge and our defense is going to have to play really well to beat this team," Strong said. "We're going to have to play well in all three phases. We have to be on our game and make sure our players stay focused, play with a lot of confidence and show some toughness."

West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen says UofL's defense is a reflection of its head coach.

"It starts with coaching," Holgorsen said. "Charlie Strong has been as well-respected of a defensive coordinator as there's been in the profession for the last two decades. As a dfensive coordinator, the guy's been part of teams that have won two national championships, and has been part of some other good programs - that tells you something."

Holgorsen describes UofL as "an attacking defense," adding, "It always starts up front. They've got D-linemen that are physical and their linebackers are enormous and cover a lot of space. They're big and physical and they've got speed as well."


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