Car­di­nals turn on record heat in the red zone

Louisville has made 48 of 50 trys in­side foes’ 20-yard line.

Austin American-Statesman - - SPORTS BRIEFING - Byjosh Ab­ner

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville is head­ing to the Sugar Bowl mainly be­cause the Car­di­nals were the best in the na­tion in­side its op­po­nents’ 20-yard line.

The No. 22 Car­di­nals (10-2) scored on 48 of 50 chances in the red zone, in­clud­ing 34 touch­downs. Their 96 per­cent success rate ranks first in the na­tion among col­lege foot­ball’s 120 FBS pro­grams.

And they needed to cap­i­tal­ize on each those chances to win the Big East Con­fer­ence and earn a date with No. 4 Florida (11-1) in New Or­leans.

The Car­di­nals had to come from be­hind in seven of their 10 wins. Three game-win­ning scores came ei­ther in the fi­nal two min­utes of reg­u­la­tion or in over­time — on plays in­side the red zone.

Louisville, which av­er­aged 31 points a game dur­ing the sea­son, re­sumes prepa­ra­tions to­day for its stiffest chal­lenge. The Ga­tors rank third na­tion­ally in scor­ing de­fense at less than 13 points a game.

Last sea­son, Louisville also was very ef­fec­tive in­side the red zone, scor­ing on 84 per­cent (31 of 37) of its at­tempts. Still, coach Char­lie Strong wasn’t sat­is­fied. He added more red zone prac­tice.

“Of­fen­sively and de­fen­sively in Fe­bru­ary, we do a scheme eval­u­a­tion and what that does is it forces us to be really crit­i­cal about us,” Louisville of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Shawn Wat­son said.

“We hit it hard and we em­pha­size it. Be­cause of the em­pha­sis, our kids are really com­fort­able down there.”

The Car­di­nals’ com­fort level helped them score on 30 straight op­por­tu­ni­ties in­side the 20 from Sept. 15 to Nov. 24. Af­ter be­ing stopped on fourth and 1 from North Carolina’s 20 dur­ing a 39-34 win, Louisville’s only other missed score came 10 weeks later when quar­ter­back Teddy Bridge­wa­ter was in­ter­cepted in the end zone in the third over­time of the Car­di­nals’ 23-20 loss to Con­necti­cut.

That was a mi­nor blem­ish on Bridge­wa­ter’s sopho­more sea­son. He ranks eighth na­tion­ally in pass­ing ef­fi­ciency and his abil­ity to spread the ball in Louisville’s pro-style pass­ing at­tack — seven or more play­ers had a re­cep­tion in ev­ery game this sea­son and 10 Car­di­nals caught touch­downs — has negated op­pos­ing de­fend­ers from key­ing on a pri­mary tar­get.

“You just see this killer in­stinct look in Teddy’s eyes and in the re­ceivers’ eyes,” cen­ter Mario Be­na­vides said of his unit’s in­creased fo­cus when deep in op­po­nent ter­ri­tory.

Wat­son said the ad­di­tional red zone prac­tice has been cru­cial for the sub­tle changes nec­es­sary to elim­i­nate the de­fend­ers’ ad­van­tage when play­ing on a short­ened field.

“One of the things that’s really im­por­tant is be­ing able to un­der­stand the spac­ing as­pects. When the fields shrinks, the tim­ing and spac­ing now goes on the side of the de­fense,” Wat­son said. “So we have to out­quick, out-ex­plode the de­fense.”

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