The following column appears in this week's edition of The Voice-Tribune
Seven weeks into the season, the hot topic around the Louisville football program is how the Cardinals are likely no more than two plays away from being undefeated.
Indeed, it's easy to point to the muffed punt against Virginia and the ill-advised 3rd down spike against Clemson (or another single play) as the only things standing between UofL and a perfect 7-0 mark. Instead, the Cardinals have two heartbreaking conference losses heading into this weekend's Homecoming game against North Carolina State.
The other prevailing conversation in the world of Cardinal sports this week has been that if Louisville had just an average -- or even slightly below average -- offense, the Derby City would be home to a legitimate top 15 or top 10 team. It's not an assertion that's difficult to support. After seven games, Louisville ranks 100th in the country in total offense, 61st in scoring, 93rd in rushing, 74th in passing, and 120th in turnovers -- keep in mind, those statistics factor in UofL's 66-point performance against Murray State.
That isn't the profile of a team just inches away from perfection, it's the profile of a Big 5 conference bottom-feeder that not many people see playing a game after November. And yet, here the Cards are, still receiving top 25 votes and still appearing to be a squad capable of winning eight or nine games and having a special season.
The reason? We may be witnessing the best defense in the history of Louisville football.
Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris is the highest-paid assistant coach in college football for a reason. He's forgotten more about the game than most people will ever know, and earlier this week he said the Cardinal unit his team went up against last weekend might have been the best he's ever had to call plays against.
"They were really good ... they were really good," Morris said. "Hats off to (UofL defensive coordinator Todd) Grantham and those guys. They were probably as fast a defense as we've seen. They have some guys that are going to play a long time in the NFL. It was one of the best, if not the best defenses we've seen since I've been here -- including the LSU defense we saw a few years ago. They were on par with those guys, and with the Florida State team of a few years ago."
It was easy for Morris to serve up that high praise after watching Louisville keep Clemson from scoring an offensive touchdown in a home game for the first time since 1995. Not bad for a debut in big, bad Death Valley.
Of course, keeping opposing offenses from scoring is sort this defense's "thing." The last time an opponent scored a touchdown that didn't come from its defense or special teams was the 3rd quarter of UofL's Sept. 13 loss at Virginia. That's 17 quarters and more than one month without allowing a single offensive touchdown, a stat the 1985 Chicago Bears would have to tip their collective hat to.
The buzz around Louisville's open practices back in August was that the program paid way too much to lure Grantham away from Georgia, and that this Cardinal team was going to be forced to ride Bobby Petrino's vaunted offense to several shootout victories. It was an understandable prognosis, even for those who had faith in Grantham's ability as a coach. Lost from last year's top-rated defense were a pair of first round NFL draft picks (safety Calvin Pryor and defensive end Marcus Smith), a third round pick who currently ranks in the NFL's top 10 in tackles (linebacker Preston Brown), and a player who set the school record for consecutive starts (safety Hakeem Smith).
Somehow, Grantham has taken a top-ranked unit which lost its most vital parts and made it better.
The Cardinal D heads into this weekend ranking No. 1 in the country in total defense, No. 1 in rushing defense, No. 3 in scoring defense, No. 6 in turnovers produced, and No. 11 in passing defense. They have kept opponents from crossing the 50-yard line into their own territory on 73.3 percent of the drives they've faced, easily the best rate in the country. And those times when the offense or the special teams have put them in bad spots? Cardinal foes have started drives in UofL territory 16 times this season, and only twice have they been able to put the ball in the endzone (13 percent).
Earlier this week, Jerry Hinnen of CBS Sports put Cardinal defensive end Lorenzo Mauldin at No. 5 on his Heisman Trophy ballot. Mauldin was the only defensive player to receive a nod from any of the CBS writers, but his inclusion was essentially a gesture of respect towards the entire Louisville defense, a unit which the entire college football world is now beginning to recognize as one the sport's best.
As frustrating as it is to think about how close UofL is to being perfect this late in the season, looking at the offensive statistics should make Cardinal supporters feel more fortunate about their team's record than upset. The unit which has put Louisville in this place is the same one that will allow it to have a shot at victory in each of its five remaining games. Given the names left on the schedule, that fact ought to make Cardinal fans awfully excited about the next month and-a-half.