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Florida State football: Just how good is Louisville's defense?

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Louisville's defense may be the best FSU faces this year.

Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

I found the following note from the ACC to be pretty interesting.

"Louisville’s Defense is indeed No. 1. The Cardinals stop troops lead the nation in total defense (245.8) and rushing defense (66.9) and are second for most pass interceptions (15). The Cardinals are also second in third-down conversion percentage defense (.240) and team pass efficiency defense (96.24) and are fourth in scoring defense."

Is this the best defense in the country, as the numbers suggest? I wouldn't go that far. But it's certainly one of the best in the country.

Louisville's defense is a very veteran group. The Cardinals start five seniors, five juniors (one a RS), and only one sophomore. The Cardinals are extremely physical in the front seven. These guys are jacked and you can tell they've put their many years in the program to good use in the weight room. The front seven comes in at 1833 pounds.

Louisville is not a heavy blitz team, preferring to let edge rushers B.J. Dubose (a player many major schools recruited, but backed off due to his grades), and Lorenzo Mauldin do most of the damage.

The back end is very experienced, plays with a lot of confidence, and is finally healthy again. The Cardinals have picked off six percent of passes against FBS competition -- second best in the country (Penn State). With the pass rush generating pressure, Louisville plays a lot of coverage and tries to punish receivers physically, forcing teams to be consistently accurate underneath.

All of this isn't that surprising considering Charlie Strong, one of the best defensive coaches in the country basically built this defense.

The reason I don't think this is the best defense in the country, however, is because of who Louisville has played. And specifically, who was playing for those teams when the games were played. I've singled out the FBS teams v. FBS competition (including BYU and Notre Dame), via CFBstats.com

Miami
Opponent Rush Pass Plays Total Yards/Play
@ Louisville 70 174 56 244 4.36
@ 17 Nebraska 76 359 65 435 6.69
24 Duke 203 223 75 426 5.68
@ Georgia Tech 107 245 44 352 8.00
@ Virginia Tech 364 92 69 456 6.61
Louisville held Miami to well below its season averages, however, this was the first game Miami played with true freshman QB Brad Kaaya, who made several major freshman mistakes.
Virginia
Opponent Rush Pass Plays Total Yards/Play
25 UCLA 120 266 84 386 4.60
Louisville 114 171 70 285 4.07
@ Brigham Young 192 327 102 519 5.09
Pittsburgh 225 121 60 346 5.77
@ 24 Duke 140 325 78 465 5.96
North Carolina 159 284 84 443 5.27
Virginia's offense is not very good, and it continued to not be very good against Louisville's defense.
Wake Forest
Opponent Rush Pass Plays Total Yards/Play
@ Louisville -22 122 57 100 1.75
@ 2 Florida St. 40 86 61 126 2.07
Syracuse 71 99 59 170 2.88
Boston College 19 242 63 261 4.14
Wake Forest's offense is awful, and it continued to be awful against Louisville.
Syracuse
Opponent Rush Pass Plays Total Yards/Play
Maryland 370 219 79 589 7.46
+ 6 Notre Dame 135 294 68 429 6.31
Louisville 59 201 62 260 4.19
2 Florida St. 156 256 67 412 6.15
@ Wake Forest 199 171 70 370 5.29
@ 22 Clemson 88 82 62 170 2.74
This was the last game played by QB Terell Hunt, as he was injured late. Hunt's numbers on the year were pretty bad on the year, but they were the worst all year against Louisville.
Clemson
Opponent Rush Pass Plays Total Yards/Play
@ 9 Georgia 88 203 76 291 3.83
@ 2 Florida St. 101 306 73 407 5.58
North Carolina 92 436 83 528 6.36
North Carolina St. 226 267 80 493 6.16
Louisville 72 157 72 229 3.18
@ Boston College 113 285 81 398 4.91
Syracuse 166 209 83 375 4.52
This game stands out, as freshman phenom Deshawn Watson was injured in the first quarter. Louisville did hold him down in very limited reps, but he only had six throws. The backup QB for Clemson was terrible and apparently also injured.
NC State
Opponent Rush Pass Plays Total Yards/Play
2 Florida St. 161 359 87 520 5.98
@ 22 Clemson 119 35 57 154 2.70
Boston College 43 174 58 217 3.74
@ Louisville 128 223 63 351 5.57
People I know think QB Jacoby Brissett's injury late in the FSU game was more serious than the Woflpack let on, and the numbers certainly agree.

So indeed, Louisville has held just about everyone under their season averages, some well under. But they've also not played any QB close to the likes of Jameis WInston, and the better QBs they've played were facing some rather interesting circumstances (first ever start as a true freshman, coming off injury, playing injured, etc.).

I also note that Louisville has not really faced a team that can spread things out and throw like Florida State can. Clemson with Watson likely could have, and the Tigers had two huge drops from Watson passes, including a deep touchdown and a deep flag route.

Much like Notre Dame, Louisville really commits to stopping the run on first down, and some of its bigger linebackers are not the best in pass coverage if isolated on early downs. FSU's receivers will have to be tough and physical because they are going to get hit. Throwing on first down worked pretty darn well for FSU against Notre Dame.

We said Notre Dame commits to stopping the run on first down, but could be had by throwing on first down. And in the second half, that happened more and more. Tomahawk Nation's Dustin Tackett has an article coming on this, but here's the stat:

Jameis Winston went 14-16 for 185 yards (11.6/attempt!) on first down against the Irish, with his lone interception. FSU probably should have thrown the ball even more on first down, and earlier in the game (13 runs, 16 passes -- 9 of which were in the second half).

Louisville's defense may be the best FSU has faced (Clemson or Notre Dame being the other two candidates), and it's the first time FSU will be traveling to face a defense of this caliber, but I'm not convinced that this defense is that much better than the other two.

More notes from the ACC:

The No. 2-ranked Seminoles, coached by Jimbo Fisher, have won an ACC-record and current NCAA-best 23 consecutive games, and face the Cardinals in Louisville for the first time since the then fourth-ranked Noles dropped a 26-20 overtime decision to the Cardinals on a Thursday night ESPN game in 2002...The Seminoles are led by sophomore QB Jameis Winston, who is 11th nationally in pass effi- ciency (160.0), and WR Rashad Greene, who leads the ACC in receptions per game (7.4), receiving yards per game (113.0) and average yards on punt returns (12.3)...Louisville, coached by Bobby Petrino, counters with the nation's No. 1 defense in total yards and rushing yards led by S Gerod Holliman and LB Lorenzo Mauldin, and an improving offense which has been boosted by the re- turn to health of WR Devante Parker, RB Michael Dyer and QB Will Gardner...The Cardinals have an impressive record of 26-1 at home under Petrino...Florida State has what amounts to a two-game lead in the Atlantic Division

52 - The number of victories to which Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher has led the Seminoles now in his fifth season as head coach in Tallahassee. His winning percentage of .839 is the best of any ACC coach with three or more seasons.