Jan. 2, 2013
NEW ORLEANS, La.-No one knows the Sugar Bowl better than University of Louisville head coach Charlie Strong, who will take a team to this prestigious bowl for the first time in school history.
Strong will make his fifth trip to the Sugar Bowl when the 18th-ranked Cardinals face the third-ranked Gators on Wednesday night in the Mercedes Benz Superdome. Strong owns a 2-2 mark in previous Sugar Bowls, including a win in his final game as a member of the Gators staff in 2010. Florida defeated Cincinnati 51-24 before Strong boarded a plane and took over the Louisville program.
Now, Strong's team will take on his previous team in Louisville's second BCS appearance, and also face its most daunting task against one of the nation's best teams.
"Coach Muschamp has done an outstanding job," said Strong at Tuesday's final press conference. "You look at that football team, they're one game away from playing for a national championship, and I think about just the speed and the quickness and just how aggressive that football team is. Defensively, you look at Elam and at them, up front big and physical, and having to control the line of scrimmage and an outstanding defense, a trademark at University of Florida, always play outstanding defense there."
If the Cardinals are going to run their record to 2-0 in BCS games, they will also have to play great defense. Louisville is facing a strong running attack, which averages almost 200 yards on the ground.
"We have to do a better job of stopping the run ourselves," said Strong. "But you look at over the last few weeks, I think over the last few games we've done a better job, and we have to continue to be better. You have to stop the run."
The Cardinals have their own weapon on offense that makes defensive coordinators stay up nights in sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who has thrown for 3,452 yards and 25 touchdowns, but is coming off a pair of crippling injuries that has slowed his play. But after five weeks off, Bridgewater is almost completely healthy.
"Teddy, has used the two his advantage, because now he's been able to get healthy," said Strong. "And you look at it, our game plan is all about Teddy. So Teddy's healthy now. So we're going to progress and Stein has to come in and play, we'll use him. But right now it's on Teddy.
Strong knows this bowl game is big for his program in so many ways. First, it gives the Cardinals an 11-win season and legitimizes their record this season. Second, it's also a springboard to 2013 where the Cardinals will be a legitimate top 15 teams.
"I always tell them: You look at a Bowl game, and I say to them this is the first game of next season. And it shows us exactly where we are. And now you have a team that it is a really good football team. And now we have to have a good showing in this football game because we need to know exactly where we are. It's going to be a measuring stick for our program and it's going to either show us how far behind we are or how much further we need to go."
The Cardinals haven't played since defeated Rutgers 20-17 on Nov. 29, but the Cardinals haven't lost their focus despite the long layoff.
"I think with the focus, even before we came to New Orleans, we started practicing in Louisville and they understand who they're playing, they understand the Bowl game," said Strong. "They have a chance to get to a BCS Bowl game and the opponent, University of Florida, speaks for itself. I don't have to say much because a lot of these players on our team are from the state of Florida. So they know a lot of the players that they're going up against. So the focus and where we need to be as far as their mindset, they understand it's the University of Florida and it's the Southeastern Conference and we're in the Sugar Bowl.
The Cardinals hope to show the rest of the country just where this program is headed when the two foes square off in the 79th edition of the Sugar Bowl, and Strong hopes his first appearance as a head coach in this game, matches his last.