After three games, the University of Louisville football team's defense is ranked where it's been for the last three seasons - in the top 25 in a number of national rankings.
The Cardinals stand 12th in the nation in total defense, allowing 285 yards per game, and are tied for fourth nationally in points allowed, yielding just nine per game. While those numbers are exactly where the team needs to be, there are still things the Cardinals need to fix before Saturday's home game against FIU.
Big plays hurt Louisville in the 27-13 win over Kentucky last Saturday. After holding the Wildcats to 116 yards in the first half, including 28 yards on the ground, UK's JoJo Kemp registered the game's long run with a 47-yarder and totaled 68 yards in the third quarter and 80 in the second half.
"You just can't give up big plays on defense," head coach Charlie Strong said. "You look at their quarterback scramble and you look at two balls that were thrown over our heads and we just had to play tighter coverage. I feel like, sometimes, that we play a lot of zone. We need to play some man coverage and let our corners just lock down their receivers."
Louisville held Kentucky to just three points through three quarters, but the Wildcats got back in the game with 10 fourth-quarter points and were stopped again inside the red zone. Jalen Whitlow made some big runs and connected on a 25-yard pass to Ryan Timmons to set up UK's first touchdown.
"We're attacking better," defensive coordinator Vance Bedford said on Wednesday. "Last year, at this time, we were giving up a lot of big plays in the run game. When you give up big plays in the run game, you're not going to be as good as you would like to be."
Despite the number of big plays, the Cardinals dominated on third down, holding the Wildcats to 0-of-13 on third down. It's the first time the Cardinals have stopped an opponent from converting a third down since 2002, when Duke was 0-for-15 on third downs on Sept. 7.
"It is a money down, so what is critical is just getting off the field," Strong said. "Not giving the team another possession or another chance to move the ball to get a first down. On defense, you need to get off the field because we don't want those drives to continue. We want to force people to punt the ball and get the ball back for our offense. If we get the ball back for our offense, we know we have a chance to go score."
While many players had big games for the Cardinals, one who stood out was junior defensive end Lorenzo Mauldin. Named the American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Week, Mauldin recorded three tackles, including a pair of sacks, and forced a fumble. He has recorded 2.5 sacks in the last two games and is stepping up to be a force from his end position.
"The way he practices is the way he plays," Strong said. "If you come and watch us practice, that is how hard he goes. He goes hard like that all the time. He is fun to watch. We tell our players all the time, `Go like Lorenzo goes.' Guys do not like to do a lot of drills against him because he is going full speed and they want him to go half speed and he won't go half speed.
"He just plays so hard, but he loves to play. He is so passionate about the game."
If the Cardinals can stop the big plays, they can continue their stance among the top 25 defenses in the country. But to do so, they must continue to be stellar on third down and limit the big plays.