ORLANDO -- Here is a breakdown of Saturday night's Russell Athletic Bowl game featuring Miami (9-3) and 18th-ranked Louisville (11-1). The Cardinals are favored to win by 3 1/2 points.
> Here is also a link to my weekly segment with Orlando Alzugaray on 640Sports.com.
WHEN MIAMI RUNS THE BALL
Louisville coach Charlie Strong said the Hurricanes present the toughest challenge his defense has faced in his four years with the Cardinals. That's not exactly a stretch -- at least for this season.
The Hurricanes are the highest-ranked scoring offense (35.9 points per game, 25th nationally) and top rushing team (172.5 yards per game, 63rd) the Cardinals will face this season. Although Louisville ranks second nationally in run defense (86.25) and is allowing only 2.74 yards a carry, they've faced only two teams who rank better than 80th rushing: Cincinnati (68th) and UCF (79th). Both of those opponents had some success (160 yards average and three touchdowns each) against the Cardinals.
Can Dallas Crawford, Gus Edwards and Eduardo Clements find running lanes behind a big, beefy offensive line that averages 320 pounds? With Duke Johnson sidelined over the last four games, they haven't done it enough. Miami has averaged 121 yards on the ground. That ranks 109th. To beat Louisville, Miami will also have to be better on third down (37.8 percent, 85th). The Cardinals rank second nationally in third down defense (28.6 percent). Edge: Louisville.
WHEN MIAMI THROWS THE BALL
The Cardinals have allowed the fewest passing touchdowns in the country (eight) and rank eighth in passing yards allowed (171.7). Only Cincinnati, whom the Cardinals beat in overtime 31-24 in the regular season finale, managed to throw for more than 250 yards against them. Sophomore cornerback Charles Gaines leads the team with 11 pass breakups and five interceptions.
Miami, led by quarterback Stephen Morris and receivers Allen Hurns and Stacy Coley, has thrived with the big pass play. UM ranks second nationally with 35 pass plays of 30 yards or more. Louisville has allowed only 10 pass plays of 30 yards or more all season (tied for fifth-fewest).
What the Cardinals do best to stop offenses is sack the quarterback (39 total, fifth nationally). Senior defensive end Marcus Smith ranks second nationally in sacks (12.5) and junior Lorenzo Mauldin is 17th with 9 1/2. UM has allowed only 13 sacks on the season. Edge: Even.
WHEN LOUISVILLE RUNS THE BALL
About the nicest thing you can say about Miami's run defense (ranked 81st, 182.33 yards per game, 25 TDs allowed) is that it isn't as bad as last year's (114th, 217.92, 29).
Junior Dominique Brown (6-2, 216) and senior Senorise Perry (6-0, 187) are averaging five yards a carry and have combined to run for 1,414 yards and 14 touchdowns on a Cardinals rushing attack that ranks 80th (150.2 yards per game). It's likely Louisville could opt to give them more work than usual Saturday when you consider the Hurricanes have given up 821 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground over their last three games. Edge: Louisville.
WHEN LOUISVILLE THROWS THE BALL
For the first time since 2010, Miami's pass defense has produced more interceptions (18) than touchdowns allowed (13). Of course, Teddy Bridgewater, the nation's fifth moss efficient passer (70.2 completion percentage, 3,523 yards, 28 TDs, 4 INTs), could change all that Saturday night.
He's got six receivers with at least 22 catches this season. Bridgewater doesn't go deep as often as Morris does, but when he does 6-3, 209-pound junior DeVante Parker (46 catches, 743 yards 11 TDs) is usually his favorite target.
But for the most part, Louisville doesn't mind killing their opponents slowly. The Cardinals rank sixth in time of possession (33 minutes, 25 seconds per game). Miami's defense is used to being on the field a lot. The Hurricanes rank 118th in time of possession (26:21). Edge: Louisville.
UM kicker Matt Goudis ended the season by shaking out of his funk with seven consecutive made field goals, finishing 13 of 17 including a season-long of 49 yards. Punter Pat O'Donnell had a special season, averaging 47.3 yards a kick including 20 punts of 50 yards or more.
Gaines has returned a kick (93 yards) and a punt (35 yards) for a touchdown this season and is hands down Louisville's most dangerous weapon in the return game. Cardinals kicker John Wallace hasn't had to boot many pressure kicks, but is 17 of 21 on field goal attempts with no makes longer than 39 yards. He has had three field goals blocked and punter Ryan Johnson (41.2 yards) has had one of his kicks blocked.
Louisville's punt coverage team is very good having allowed 15 total yards on 13 punt returns. Coley has a punt and kick return for a touchdown this season and should be aided by the return of Phillip Dorsett. Edge: Even.
Strong hasn't faced many ranked opponents in his four seasons as coach, but he's 4-1 in those games. His team has trailed only once at halftime this season -- 13-10 against Houston -- before rallying for a 20-13 win.
Louisville will be Miami's third rank opponent this season. The Hurricanes beat Florida 21-16 back on Sept. 7 before the Gators went into a tailspin and then they were blown out at Florida State 41-14. Miami is 3-5 under coach Al Golden against ranked teams. Good starts are almost mandatory with UM going 17-1 when leading at halftime under Golden, and 3-13 when trailing. Edge: Louisville.
PREDICTION: Louisville 38, Miami 27