The philosophy: "The first thing our offense is about is utilizing our weapons," says Petrino. "We have a philosophy that we call 'FTS' -- Feed the Studs. We want to get the ball to our best players and make sure we utilize the guys who can go out and make plays."
The system: The Cardinals, more of a finesse, spread-passing team under predecessor John L. Smith (for whom Petrino was the original offensive coordinator), have evolved into an extremely balanced unit that spends about two-thirds of a game in modern, spread formations (either zero or one back and four or five receivers) and the other third running traditional, power-I football. "Basically, I believe if you're ever going to win a national championship, you have to be able to run the football in the second half," says Petrino. "We don't just run the spread. We have the ability to run the ball downhill." With an extensive array of personnel groupings, Louisville is also able to run the same play out of as many as 10 different formations, creating confusion for the defense.
The results: Petrino has gone 20-5 in two seasons, including an 11-1 record last year that netted the Cardinals a season-ending No. 6 ranking. Last year, Louisville led the country in both points (49.8) and yards (539.0) per game, set an NCAA record by scoring 55 or more points in five straight games and was the only team in the country to rank in the top 10 in both rushing offense (250.4 yards per game) and passing offense (288.6). The Cardinals also led the nation in total offense during Petrino's one season as coordinator under Smith (1998).
Influences: Petrino learned the ropes working for his father, NAIA Hall of Famer Bob Petrino, at Carroll College in Montana. The elder Petrino's teams used the option and QB audibles to outsmart defenses. The roots of Bobby's spread philosophy took hold in the early '90s when, as offensive coordinator at Idaho under Smith, he studied Dennis Erickson's schemes at Miami. Petrino's interest in power running was piqued during subsequent jobs with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Auburn, and over the past couple of years he has also incorporated play-action elements from the Indianapolis Colts.
Why it works: Blessed recently with not only exceptional quarterbacks (Stefan LeFors, Brian Brohm) and receivers (J.R. Russell) but an abundance of bruising tailbacks (Eric Shelton, Michael Bush), Louisville has been able to mount an extremely balanced attack in which, ideally, it both runs and passes for more than 250 yards per game. While the Cardinals spent most of last season whipping up on hapless Conference USA opponents (they move to the Big East this year), Petrino's offense gained major validation when it torched Miami's normally dominant defense for 507 yards in a nail-biting, 41-38 loss. "I think what Louisville is doing is as good as anyone, moving it up and down on people," says South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier. "I really admire what [Petrino] is doing."
How to stop it: The biggest key is slowing down Louisville's rushing attack, which requires a dominant defensive line as well as smart linebackers and defensive backs. If a defense can keep the Cardinals' tailbacks from breaking off big runs and force them into second or third-and-long situations, it'll be better able to effectively blitz the quarterback, who is usually so well-coached that, if given too much time, will find the open receiver more often than not (LeFors completed nearly 74 percent of his passes last season).