WVU football: Inexperience for Louisville turning corner
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- West Virginia won't play a younger team during the regular season than the one it welcomes to Mountaineer Field on Saturday.
Louisville started the season ranked second on the most-inexperienced team list in major college football, ahead only of defending national champion Auburn.
The Cardinals have started 11 freshmen and given 26 players their first game experience this season.
There are 15 true or redshirt freshmen in the two-deep on offense and defense. Four are listed as starters on offense and three are listed as starters on defense.
That's not necessarily an inviting set of circumstances for Dana Holgorsen, coach of the No. 24 Mountaineers, who play host to the Cardinals at noon (Big East Network telecast).
"The thing that's frightening about freshmen is they get better," Holgorsen said.
The Cardinals (4-4, 2-1) have the Big East's best defense and have only recently started to improve their offense.
Seven starters returned to the Louisville defense this season while just four starters came back on offense.
The offense starts freshmen at quarterback and receiver and on the offensive line, but they've been good for the Cardinals.
"All their key guys, from their quarterback to the guys he's throwing it to, are developing more and more timing than they had earlier in the year," Holgorsen said. "They're a deeper football team than we are. They play more people than we do, which, due to the fact they're young and they're playing a lot, means they're probably going to get better."
It's a sudden change for the Cardinals, who still make young mistakes.
Louisville is No. 119 out of 120 FBS teams in penalties per game (8.5) and No. 109 in red zone offense (12-for-17, eight touchdowns). They're still also No. 113 in scoring offense (17.63 points per game) and No. 103 in total offense (329.38 yards per game).
Louisville hasn't scored more than 24 points on the road this season. WVU averages 41.6 points at home.
"We need to continue to improve," U of L Coach Charlie Strong said. "We're nowhere near where we should be."
After starting 2-2 and firing the offensive coordinator, Louisville has won back-to-back games against Rutgers and Syracuse. It's the team's first conference winning streak since 2006. The Cardinals averaged 6.0 yards per snap in Saturday's win against Syracuse, which soundly beat the Mountaineers (6-2, 2-1) a week earlier.
They also had 343 yards of offense, the highest total since opening the season with 385 yards against FCS member Murray State and following that with 446 yards in a loss to Florida International. Louisville scored 21 and 17 points in those two games.
"We weren't playing very well in the beginning, but now guys over the last few weeks are getting healthy and getting better," saidSstrong, who agreed to a seven-year contract extension last month. "Our offensive line wasn't healthy, but now we've got guys back who were banged up back. The running backs are running better. The wide receivers are making plays. And when you have a young quarterback, you need all of that from the people around him."
Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is one of the six freshmen to start on offense for the Cardinals. He made his first start in last month's loss to Marshall, but has completed 27 of 42 passes for 320 yards, three touchdowns and one interception in his past two starts.
Bridgewater has three freshmen making plays at receiver. Michaelee Harris, who had a medical redshirt last season, leads the team with 26 receptions and 356 yards. Bridgewater's high school teammate, Eli Rogers, is tied for second on the team with 21 catches for 230 yards. DeVante Parker has 11 receptions, but leads the team with four touchdowns.
The offensive line has found a rotation, too. Strong has used eight different starters up front, including two true freshmen and one who was recruited as a defensive lineman. The Cardinals have started four different groups and only right guard and right tackle have stayed the same from the beginning of the season.
In the past two games, the starting five has been the same and the previous experiments gave Louisville depth to better run the ball and protect the passer.
"Now we get us a rotation," Strong said. "The last two weeks, we've been able to run the football because our offensive line has been able to block better. We've been able to protect the quarterback.
"You look at two weeks ago in the Rutgers game, we gave up no sacks. We gave up a few sacks the last game with the pressure they were coming with.
"We've been able to run the ball where we've been able to get a 100-yard rusher. We need to run the football. Now it doesn't make us one-dimensional. The offense is getting better. The wide receivers are getting open, the running backs are running better, the offensive line is blocking and the quarterback is doing a better job of managing it."
Louisville has started senior Victor Anderson and sophomore Dominique Brown - a quarterback last season - at running back this season. They're featured with sophomore Jeremy Wright, who actually leads the team in rushing.
Wright had the team's first 100-yard rushing game against Rutgers and Anderson just missed another last week against the Orange. The Cardinals are No. 92 in rushing yards per game (123.12), but have averaged 166 the past two games.
"They're getting better," Holgorsen said. They've made some changes and, again, it goes back to young guys. They were playing a bunch of different people early and they didn't have as much success early as they wanted.
"They made some changes and since they've done that they've been a little more efficient. They may not be putting up big numbers and big points, but it looks to me like they're more efficient playing that many young kids."
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ESPN HAS decided to exercise a six-day option on selecting the Nov. 12 WVU-Cincinnati game at Paul Brown Stadium for television.
The game will be televised on ESPN, ESPN2 or ABC. A Big East official said the game is likely to be played at noon or 3:30 p.m. and not in primetime. A network decision on the gametime and network will be made by noon Sunday.
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142.