DocCardsFan's exceptional UConn preview earlier this week has afforded us the opportunity to get a little bit more specific as kickoff approaches.
Here are a few items to keep an eye on tomorrow night.
1. Louisville stacking the box
Though it's easy to claim that his stats are inflated because of the number of carries he's received or the defenses he's gone up against, Donald Brown is the real deal, a fact Louisville's Orange Bowl champion defense learned firsthand when the then freshman scampered for 122 yards on 21 carries in the 2006 regular season finale.
Though he stands just 5-10, 208, the Cards haven't seen a back nearly as physical as Brown, who'll provide the biggest test yet for U of L's still inexperienced linebacking corps. Given Tyler Lorenzen's recent struggles, Ron English stacking the box with eight or nine guys until the Huskies prove they can move the ball through the air is just about the safest bet anyone can make over the next 24 hours.
It's a shame that Richard Raglin is almost certainly going to be in street clothes, because this is the type of game where he could have thrived. Instead, it will be Bobby Buchanan and Latarrius Thomas who will be called upon to make plays within five yards of the line of scrimmage. I'm also interested to see if English opts to use a guy like Brandon Heath as a sort of safety/linebacker hybrid, or whether he gives the physical challenge (Double Dare) to the likes of Daniel Covington and Josh Wiley.
2. Pressing Cardinal corners
English and Eric Lewis's stated objective last week was to not let Josh Freeman complete deep passes over the heads of their defensive backs. The result was a lot of early six or seven yard completions in front of Johnny Patrick and Woodny Turenne. With Lorenzen's confidence shaken and him unlikely to throw anything outside of single-digit yard slants, outs or stops early in the game, I think it's safe to assume that the corners are going to be far more aggressive tomorrow night.
Through four weeks, the Huskies still don't have one wideout with more than 100 yards receiving. Things have gotten so bad that cornerback Darius Butler has been brought over to help out.
If the Cards have to decrease the amount of attention paid to Donald Brown because of the effectiveness of the UConn air attack, then they're going to be in trouble.
3. Connecticut bringing pressure in the middle
Maybe the biggest thing the U of L offense has going for it right now is that the Husky defense is coming off of a week in which it spent all its time preparing for a spread attack and trying to contain a world class athlete at quarterback. Even with what Louisville has been able to accomplish in its last two games, Scott Lutrus, Lawrence Wilson and Greg Lloyd have to be excited about the prospects of blitzing and run-stuffing as opposed to covering wideouts and shadowing Robert Griffin. The trio of sophomores are about as talented as any group of middle men in the Big East, and Todd Orlando is likely going to let them test a hobbled Cardinal offensive line from the opening series of the game on.
4. UConn's defensive ends vs. Louisville's offensive tackles
The Huskies possess probably the best bookend tandem in the conference with Cody Brown and Julius Williams. The pair were among the league's top 20 in multiple defensive categories at the end of last season, and have already combined for five sacks (Brown three, Williams two) in 2008.
Greg Tomczyk did a tremendous job supplanting the injured George Bussey a week ago, but Kansas State can't lay claim to a threat off the edge as potent as either Brown or Williams. If the duo has their way on the outside and the middle is opened up for the Husky linebackers to do work, then the Cardinal offense could end up looking more like it did on Sept. 2 than on Sept. 17.
5. Josh Chichester getting increased looks
Butler is among the top corners in the conference and sophomore Jasper Howard has had his moments, but they stand just 5-10 and 5-9, respectively. Husky safeties Robert Vaughn and Dahna Deleston are each talented veterans with big plays to their credit this season, but they're only a couple of inches taller than Butler.
While the group is skilled and athletic enough to potentially put the clamps on a guy like Doug Beaumont, there's absolutely nothing any of them can do if 6-8 Josh Chichester runs a solid route and the ball is put in the correct place. With Scott Long and Troy Pascley both appearing to be no-gos, the spotlight will once again shine a bit brighter on the man who can't be checked on the baseline inside Rupp Arena.
6. The utilization of Andre Dixon
While Brown is currently leading the country in rushing, many seem to have forgotten that he didn't even lead his own team in the category a year ago. That honor belongs to fellow junior Andre Dixon, who has been hampered by an ankle injury since late August and has carried the ball just once in '08.
Dixon, who lit Louisville up for 170 all-purpose yards a year ago, played sparingly against Baylor, but Randy Edsall has hinted all week that his production would be increased in the conference opener. Dixon might be the top dual threat back in the Big East, so don't be surprised if Connecticut subtly tries to slip him into the game and burn an over-aggressive Cardinal rush defense by hitting him in the flats or on a middle screen. If you see No. 2 trotting onto the field, it'd probably be wise to keep the blitzing to a minimum.
7. The continuing emergence of the Zack Stoudt jersey
This kid's on the verge of having one of the greatest redshirt seasons in the history of college football.
8. U of L trying to look like a varsity high school squad on special teams
I've given up on hoping to win the special teams battle, and have moved on to the more realistic option of at least keeping it close. Timmy Dougherty appears composed enough to handle placekicking duties from inside 45 yards or so, and I think being removed from the job is really going to help Chris Philpott on kickoffs. If you noticed, his best kicks came after made extra points or field goals, while his shanks or kicks that didn't make it to the 20-yard line came after he'd missed or had a field goal attempt blocked.
UConn has one of the best punters/kickoff men in the conference in Louisville native Desi Cullen, and placekicker Tony Ciaravino has been solid from inside of 40 yards. Butler is an extremely dangerous return man, and going up against a Cardinal coverage unit that has struggled with tackling opposing players carrying footballs and looking to advance toward the endzone should make him that much more dangerous.
9. Let's talk edges
OK, this isn't something to watch for, but if you want to fight about it, well, I'll probably change it to something else because I like to avoid conflict.
UConn run offense vs. U of L run defense
The Huskies have a senior-laden offensive line and the leading rusher in the country. And if Andre Dixon is healthy, he's one of the top six or seven backs in the conference.
UConn pass offense vs. U of L pass defense
Lorenzen's thrown just one touchdown to six interceptions so far this year, and he comes into this game with his confidence especially shaken after a particularly rough night a week ago. While Butler's athletic enough to come in and make some plays down the field, the Huskies don't have the receivers to make life easier for Lorenzen against an experienced U of L secondary.
U of L run offense vs. UConn run defense
This is a tight one, and could be where the game is ultimately won or lost. Victor Anderson and Brock Bolen are each coming off of monster performances, but Kansas State's front seven is a far cry from what they'll be up against on Friday. Still, U of L's men in the trenches are playing with a great deal of confidence, and the guys they have behind them don't need enormous openings to make plays.
U of L pass offense vs. UConn pass defense
Butler and Vaughn are outstanding, and Deleston is an imposing figure across the middle who's made a pretty smooth transition from linebacker to safety. Chichester is the wild card, and as we've seen over the first three games, he has the potential to make both the amazing play look routine and the simple play look impossible. This is also the first 4-3 defense the Cards have faced since Kentucky, and one that has comparable talent and a comparable commitment to putting pressure on the quarterback. U of L didn't exactly set the world - or Rhode Island - on fire through the air in their season-opener, so them making the proper adjustments to ensure that Hunter Cantwell has adequate time to release the football is paramount.
U of L special teams vs. Connecticut special teams
They're a crafty bunch. Is "crafty" the right word?
Nobody has to go to work the next day, so I'd expect nothing less than a packed house out for blood in what most fans are approaching as a revenge game.
Make it happen, people.