The Louisville Cardinals will head to Hattiesburg, Mississippi Saturday to kick off week five at 8pm. On paper, this game looks like it could be Louisville's most decisive victory thus far, as they enter the game 4-0 for the first time since 2006. The Golden Eagles are off to their worse start since 1976, coming in at 0-3. Southern Miss will look to play the 'giant killer' role as they face their former Conference USA rival.
Louisville is coming off a disappointing win at FIU, where they could not seem to keep their foot on the gas for four quarters. The same song was sang the week prior when North Carolina came to Louisville and almost walked out with a 'W' until Andrew Johnson broke up a game saving North Carolina pass in the end zone on fourth down.
The Louisville defense is without a doubt it's greatest question mark. Coming out of camp, the defense was slated to be what kept them in games, much like last season, but with the departure of Dexter Heyman and Greg Scruggs, this defense is still lacking in the leadership department. Preston Brown could be that leader. Stepping into the starting middle linebacker position, Brown has the opportunity to be the voice the Cards need. Thus far, the spread offenses that each of the Cards' opponents have utilized have stunted Brown's greatest strength: rushing the passer. The quick passes and bubble screens have made the defense's numbers look anemic. The tackles for loss and sack columns are way behind last years numbers, the defense has only gotten to the quarterback four times in four games. That number has to improve.
If there is one part of the defense that has been there when needed, it's the secondary. Calvin Pryor is proving to be a reliable corner as he leads the team tackles with 28 and was the leading player the nation in forced fumbles coming into last weeks game with three through three games. Hakeem Smith and Adrian Bushell are also doing their part with 21 tackles a piece to their credit.
If the defensive front four could get some pressure behind the line of scrimmage, this defense could perform as advertised coming out of camp. That may be another tall order, though, as they will likely face another spread offensive again on Saturday. The Golden Eagles are now relying on their third quarterback in Ricky Lloyd. They will be relying on him exclusively this week after running a multiple QB offense through the first three games. This move will give Lloyd a lot more practice time this week, and almost certainly mean Southern Miss will spread the field and force Louisville to make plays in space. Look for more quick passes that will play away from the Cards' strengths as a defense. Lloyd enters the game completing 50% of his passes (4-8) for average of 9 yards per attempt, one touchdown, and zero interceptions through two games.
Southern Miss has two running backs that have seen action in all three games. Johnson is getting the bulk of the attempts, and is boasting a 5.3 yards per carry. Hester gets the fewest amount of calls (14 through 3 games), but can open up the big play on the ground. He already has a 35 yard run to his credit, and at 5'6, he is easy for defensive backs to lose track of his position on the field. Look for Johnson to be in the backfield in red zone situations.
In the Golden Eagle receiving corp, there are five wide outs that have seen action in all three games, and four more who have seen the field in two of the three. Lampley and Triplett get the majority of the balls thrown their way in the spread, but Hester has shown he can catch the ball out of the backfield when six yards are needed. Sullivan is the big play guy at this position. He has seen the field in all three games, and averages over 26 yards per completion, including a 46 yard long. Despite flashes from a few guys in the receiver group, the Golden Eagles rank 111th or worse in nearly scoring category and sacks allowed.
If there is one thing Southern Miss does right, it's special teams play. This team can flip the field. They rank fifth nationally in kickoff returns, and Peter Boehme can rip 50 yard punts regularly.
Look for the Louisville offense to go to the air often. The fact that Southern Miss allows opposing offenses to complete 58% their third downs should make for several long Cardinal scoring drives. This game sets up perfect for Teddy Bridgewater. He will surely have a chip on his shoulder after throwing two interceprions against FIU in his worst game so far this season. Look for Bridgewater to put up big numbers in Hattiesburg. Also noteworthy: Louisville will evaluate Dominique Brown, last season's leading rusher, this week. A decision will almost certainly be made before Saturday on whether to add a third running back to Louisville's backfield, or give Brown a redshirt.