Cardinals turn on record heat in the red zone
Louisville has made 48 of 50 trys inside foes’ 20-yard line.
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.”