No. 20 Louisville enters bye with defensive issues

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LOUISVILLE (AP) — A bye week couldn’t come at a better time for No. 20 Louisville and its struggling defense.

Louisville’s chance for a perfect season evaporated with Saturday’s 45-26 loss at Syracuse. It was the most points the Cardinals have surrendered all season but far from the first sign of concern.

Forced to come from behind in its last six wins, Louisville couldn’t outscore a Syracuse attack that gashed Cardinals for 278 yards on the ground and 524 total yards. Even when it wasn’t allowing big plays Louisville’s defense couldn’t get off the field as the Orange converted 14 of their 19 attempts on third downs

Louisville coach Charlie Strong said the problem lies with tackling fundamentals and players not controlling their gaps. The open week offers the defense a chance to re-examine its responsibilities and for the team to refocus on its preseason goal of a Big East title and a BCS bowl bid.

The Cardinals can still reach both goals with wins in its final two games against Connecticut and at Rutgers.

“The bigger goal is still to be met. The important thing is for us to not let one setback turn into frustration, excuse-making, lack of responsibility or poor individual habits,” Strong said.

The coach tried to deflect some of Saturday’s blame from the defense toward himself, saying his buildup — calling it their “championship game” — may have been a mistake for his young team.

“Maybe it’s more my fault of setting the stage a little higher than what it should have been set,” Strong said. “I just thought maybe that we were just a little further maturity-wise and we could have handled it a little better. Now, looking back (I) probably put too much on them in the beginning.”

The Cardinals have just 10 seniors and Strong said his third-year program isn’t at the level yet to handle the scrutiny that comes with a possible perfect season.

“Everyone’s (been) telling them how good they are. We have never been placed in that position. We’ve always done better coming from the underdog role instead of being favored.”

The team’s mood is understandably down after Saturday’s thrashing and Strong wants his team to remember that.

“They need to hurt. They need to feel the pain of that loss,” Strong said. “That’s the only way the program will ever grow.”

This week’s bye may provide enough time for the return of defensive end and sack leader Lorenzo Mauldin, who injured a knee Oct. 26 versus Cincinnati. The defensive line has also been without DeAngelo Brown (injury) and B.J. Dubose (suspension).

One player the Cardinals won’t have back is leading rusher Senorise Perry. The Big East leader with 11 touchdowns this season tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee Saturday and will miss the rest of the year.

Junior running back Jeremy Wright has started every game but will shoulder more of the rushing load after previously splitting carries with Perry. Freshman Corvin Lamb, who caught a 53-yard touchdown pass against Syracuse but has just two rushing attempts for minus-1 yard this season, will back up Wright.

Junior Dominique Brown, Louisville’s leading returning rusher from last year, was injured earlier in the year and has yet to play while eligible to redshirt. Strong said he would consider using Brown in the Cardinals’ final two games, especially if another back were injured.

In addition to shoring up the defense, Louisville will use the open week to prepare for the short turnaround before its final game. Louisville travels to Rutgers on Nov. 29, just five days after hosting UConn.

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