Whenever Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater takes the field, it is tempting to say he is the player to watch -- -- almost by default.
But that may not be the case Thursday night in Cincinnati, when the No. 19 Cardinals take on the cross-state rival Bearcats in the final scheduled meeting between the two. The game could very well rest on both defenses, the top two groups in the American Athletic Conference and among the best units in the entire nation.
Louisville and Cincinnati rank in the top 10 in the nation in rush defense, total defense and scoring defense. The Cards lead the nation with 38 sacks, six more than Cincinnati (which ranks No. 16). Their ability to get after the quarterback starts with defensive end Marcus Smith, who is putting up an All-America-type season.
Smith leads the nation in sacks with 12.5, the most at the school since Elvis Dumervil had 20 in 2005. Teammate Lorenzo Mauldin has 9.5 sacks, making them the top sack duo in the entire nation. To understand how far both have come, just take a look back at where they were when they arrived at Louisville.
Mauldin was a project, a player who had severe trust issues after spending his childhood in and out of foster homes. At first, he was only used in obvious passing downs. But now, he has developed into a dependable every down player.
Smith entered as a 217-pound quarterback before moving to linebacker and then defensive end. But the transition was not easy for him to make.
“I had a confidence issue,” Smith said in a recent phone interview. “Even though the coaches told me, ‘You can be this; you can be that,’ I didn’t believe it within myself. It took maybe a year into it for me to realize how good I could be so I just took the coaching and I got my craft together.”
Smith has gained 40 pounds since he arrived at Louisville and spent this past spring working on his speed. The results have followed. Before the season started, he made a goal to get to 10 sacks. Now that he has pushed past that, and with one game left in the regular season, he wants 15.
All this brings up an interesting question. How he transform himself from a quarterback to a punishing defensive end?
“It’s hard to explain,” Smith said. “All you can do is listen to your coaches. I never would have thought I’d be playing defensive end. I asked my dad what should I do because I wasn’t getting any action at quarterback, and they asked me to play on defense because they felt I could help the team out. I wanted to help the team.
“I love going against the quarterback now. I know quarterback tendencies, so I help out our defensive linemen who haven’t been on that side of the ball and let them know what’s going on. I have a better feel for it.”
He’s grown up, and up he understands the type of football team and players around him. He’s fun to watch on film, but I’m not going to have fun watching him Thursday. He’s a complete player, and he’s going to make a name for himself one day.
”--Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville, on Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater
Cincinnati, meanwhile, went through some growing pains early in the season as the Bearcats made the transition to a new scheme under coach Tommy Tuberville. But Tuberville says his group has played much more consistently in the second half of the season as his players have gotten more comfortable with what they are being asked to do. More importantly, the Bearcats have been able to build depth.
They can go two-deep on the defensive line, linebacker and in the secondary, relying on younger players who have improved with each passing week.
Still, the challenge Thursday may be bigger for the Cincinnati defense, which has to try and shut down Bridgewater, who is putting up another terrific season outside the national spotlight.
“He’s grown up, and up he understands the type of football team and players around him,” Tuberville said in a recent phone interview. “He’s fun to watch on film, but I’m not going to have fun watching him Thursday. He’s a complete player, and he’s going to make a name for himself one day.”
The stakes are high in this game, the battle for the Keg of Nails. Cincinnati will hand out replicas of the trophy to the first 5,000 fans coming to the game at sold out Nippert Stadium, where the Bearcats are undefeated this season.
They also hold out slim hope for a BCS berth. The Bearcats would need to win, have UCF lose to SMU on Saturday and then finished as the highest ranked BCS team when the final standings are released on Sunday.
“We know we’ve dug ourselves a hole, but this is a rivalry game. You want to have bragging rights,” Tuberville said. “This I about the Keg of Nails.”