Louisville run game may vex Pitt

Pitt Football

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Louisville featured one of the most potent passing attacks in Division I-A during the period from 2003-06.

But a little-known secret about those teams -- led by former coach Bobby Petrino and quarterbacks Brian Brohm and Stefan LeFors -- is that while the passing game provided glitzy statistics and highlights, the offense was powered by a dominant and versatile rushing attack.

In those four years the Cardinals were 41-9, never rushed for less than 185 yards per game and finished among the top 12 in the NCAA in rushing offense three times.

Last year, under first-year coach Steve Kragthorpe, the Cardinals fell to 6-6 and failed to go to a bowl game for the first time since the 1997 season, even though they still had Brohm and a passing attack that averaged 342 yards per game and ranked fourth in the country.

  • Game: Pitt (6-2) vs. Louisville (5-3), noon.
  • Where: Heinz Field.
  • TV: WTAE.

The Cardinals weren't very good at rushing the football in 2007. Louisville finished the season ranked 64th in the NCAA in rushing and averaged less than 150 yards per game on the ground (146) for the first time since before the Petrino era.

This year, the Cardinals rushing attack is back on track; they are 5-3 (1-2 Big East) and poised to return to a bowl game after their one-year hiatus. Louisville is averaging 189 yards rushing per game, 4.83 yards per carry and is ranked No. 26 in the NCAA (third in the Big East) in rushing offense.

They have a winning record even though they average only 199 passing yards per game, which is their lowest passing average since 1992.

No. 25 Pitt (6-2, 2-1) plays host to Louisville tomorrow at Heinz Field and one of the Panthers' top priorities will be trying to figure out how to stop the Cardinals rushing attack. Louisville features three running backs: Victor Anderson, Brock Bolen and Bilal Powell. All three have a different running style.

The key to it all is Anderson, who is the fifth-leading rusher in the Big East and the Cardinals' leading rusher. He has rushed 136 times for 840 yards and seven touchdowns, and he averages 6.2 yards per carry and 105 yards rushing per game.

Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said that Anderson's speed and breakaway ability put him in a category among the elite backs in the nation, but he's wary of the Cardinals' other two running backs because they are capable of carrying the load if needed.

"They average almost 200 yards rushing per game and have been very consistent with it," Wannstedt said. "They also have some very nice blocking schemes and they are able to run the ball out of all of their personnel groups. That's something we have to be prepared for -- everything they do starts off the run and a lot of their passes are complementary to their running game.

"[Anderson] plays big, but he has the speed to make the long runs and can make guys miss. He is the complete back. They'll throw him screens, he can catch, he is certainly not one-dimensional."

Anderson, who is a 5-foot-9, 182-pound redshirt freshman, said that the Cardinals offense is rolling this year mostly because they are confident in the run game.

"It really all works together for us, the run and the pass," Anderson said. "Our running game sets up our passing game, and when we make a few throws down the field that opens up lanes for us to run. I think, though, it really all starts up front. Our offensive line has been very consistent and has opened up a lot of holes for us. They do a great job of and blocking keeping defenders off our quarterback as well.

"We want to be balanced on offense and this year we really do have a very well-balanced offense, and since we have three different kinds of backs, our running game is versatile and that allows us to attack teams in different ways based on situations. Our line gives us a great chance to be successful running the ball on every play."

Anderson said that he is able to use his speed, but it is also a good change of pace because Bolen and Powell are bigger and more powerful than he is. He said those two are able to wear defenses down and that makes it tougher for defenses to catch him because he's always fresh.

"With us three, we can do great things together," Anderson said. "They come in and get the tough yards and then I come in and try to run around [the defense]. We can also mix it up so it works well, but like I said before, it all starts up front and I thank those big guys for blocking so well."

Although the Cardinals have been on a roll running the football, Anderson believes they'll face their toughest test tomorrow because he has watched Pitt's defense on film and believes it might be the best they've faced.

"Pitt's front four is really, really good, they get a great push off the ball and get into the running lanes quickly," Anderson said. "They are athletic; they move very well. Their linebackers really come downhill well to stop the run, their defensive backs also cover well so we have to be able to mix some things up to try and keep them off balanced. It will be a great challenge for us."

Paul Zeise can be reached at pzeise@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1720.


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