Cards trying to keep their powerful defensive surge going at Miami

By RUSS BROWN, Kentucky Today Nov 15, 2023

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) – Cam’Ron Kelly called it. Talking to the media recently about the mindset of Louisville’s defense in the aftermath of a 38-21 upset win by Pittsburgh a few weeks earlier and looking to the future, the redshirt senior safety said this:

“When we watched film of that game, we didn’t have the energy we usually had and we basically looked in each other’s eyes and said that’s never going to happen again. Sometimes things have to get ugly before they get beautiful, and it’s going to be beautiful soon.”

For Cardinal coaches and fans, Louisville’s defense most of the season, and especially since the Pitt debacle, has definitely been a thing of beauty, a trend they hope continues in Saturday’s high noon showdown with Miami in Hard Rock Stadium in South Florida with a spot in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game on the line.

Unlike what one would expect from a coach in Jeff Brohm’s mold with a reputation for explosive offenses, it’s been the Cards’ defense that has fueled the 9-1 record and three-game winning streak that have put them on the brink of the ACC title game and into the No. 10 spot in the latest playoff rankings.

“I have explained it a few times before,” Brohm said. “You prepare hard in the offseason, you get a plan together. Some of it is traditional, some of it is not. Talking in generalities, it is about getting pressure on the quarterback, getting in front of receivers and not allowing free releases or easy completions, creating confusion, making the quarterback look downfield longer than he would like, allowing our defense to get in there and get after him.

“Our linebackers get to play downhill, play multiple fronts and shifts and disguise coverages. All those things matter. I am a former quarterback and I know what we don’t like to see. Right now, our defense is doing a lot of those things and doing them very well.”

Prior to Virginia getting 434 yards, including 120 rushing in Louisville’s 31-24 win last Saturday, the Cards had held five straight foes under 300 yards total offense and less than 100 yards rushing. It is one of Cards’ most dominant defenses in the last three decades, and could wind up being hailed as one of the program’s best ever depending on what happens in the last three or four games against Miami, Kentucky and a bowl, plus the potential title game against Florida State.

Going into the Miami game, Louisville ranks second nationally in the fewest number of opponent red zone attempts with 18, behind No. 2 Michigan’s 14, and is sixth in opponent third-down conversions at 28.0%. The Cards are ninth in the country in rushing defense, allowing 91.9 yards per game; 12th in scoring defense (17.1 ppg); and 16th in total defense (300.1 ypg).

In putting together such impressive numbers, the players had to adapt to a change in scheme under co-defensive coordinators Ron English and Mark Hagan, with input from Brohm. English also coaches the secondary and Hagen is responsible for the defensive line. The Cards’ base defense is a pro-style 4-2-5 as opposed to a 4-3 the previous three seasons under former head coach Scott Satterfield and defensive coordinator Bryan Brown.

English, who Tuesday was one of 57 coaches nominated for the Broyles Award given to the best assistant each year, said one of the defense’s strength is its versatility.

“We really believe in putting these guys in a position where they can bee successful,” English said. “It’s not a system. It’s not this is our package and this is what we’re running. I look at three stats. Number one is points per game, number two is rushing yards per game and number three is third down conversions.”

Brohm believes his defense has a good mix of veterans, along with transfers and players with limited experience who have melded well.

“You want that on your defense, on your team,” he said. “A lot of these guys are trying to make a name for themselves and help their unit perform at a high level.”

Louisville’s defense doesn’t have a dominant player, although rush end Ashton Gillottee (6-3, 270) comes close and could wind up as the most decorated if he continues at his current pace. The Boca Raton, Fla. product is tied for the ACC lead in sacks with nine, is also No. 1 in forced fumbles (3) and is No. 2 in tackles for loss (13).