While the University of Louisville football team’s offense consistently has been among the country’s elite, the Cardinals’ defense is seemingly hitting its stride.

Over the last three games, the group has totaled 17 tackles for loss. In the past two victories, wins over Virginia and Syracuse, Louisville’s defense held both teams to a little more than four yards per play, and a combined 14 second-half points.

More importantly, a group that was hampered by injuries throughout the season has regained its critical pieces, including starters Jaire Alexander and Stacy Thomas, in time for the final stretch.

Louisville wraps up it season with rivalry week, heading east to face Kentucky on Saturday in Lexington. The contest at Kroger Field starts at noon, but it’s a game that fans of both teams circled when the football season started.

Head coach Bobby Petrino and his staff, though, are approaching it only as the next game on the schedule.

“We just go out and practice,” Petrino said. “We go to the meetings and practice, and our guys get ready to play and try to put it out on the field.”

The mentality, especially as of late, has been successful for the Cardinals’ defense. Syracuse entered last week’s game averaging more than 470 yards of offense per contest and finished with 335. Virginia logged 277 yards in its loss to Louisville, nearly 100 yards less than its season average.

One key to that success is the return of Jaire Alexander, hailed as one of the top cornerbacks entering the 2017 campaign. The junior’s assignment against Syracuse was one of the top receivers in the country in Steve Ishmael, who has more than 1,000 receiving yards and was averaging 113 yards per game. He was held to two receptions for 29 yards.

“I watch a lot of film on my opponents,” Alexander said when asked about his success on covering Ishmael. “I knew his weaknesses and I was able to capitalize on them, and it showed Saturday.”

Kentucky doesn’t have a 1,000-yard receiver, but the Wildcats do feature a 1,000-yard rusher in Benny Snell. The sophomore running back has six 100-yard rushing games this season, with 16 touchdowns on the ground.

Both teams expect to impose their will running the ball, and Louisville knows it’s going to take a team effort to shut down Snell.

“We’re going to have to hit him, get all 11 hats to the ball,” Jonathan Greenard said of Snell. “He’s a dynamic person. He wants to get to the outside and make a lot of plays.”

Fortunately for the Cardinals, the defense has locked down the stars on the last two teams.

For Louisville to reclaim the Governor’s Cup, though, Petrino believes the team needs to stay course with what has made it successful.

“What we need to do is just focus on our concentration in the meetings, our understanding,” Petrino said. “The things we’ve been working on in the last three weeks is coming to practice and then going out and working as hard as we can. Trying to understand that we earn the right to win on the practice field. I think that needs to carry over and we need to go out and have a great week of practice.”

by Rocco Gasparro

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