LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Football camp is over. Classes have started. Three weeks of practices are in the book. It's now time for the games to begin.
University of Louisville head coach Charlie Strong officially kicked off game week with his first press conference of the season, previewing the Cardinals' game against Kentucky on Sunday at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium at 3:30 p.m.
The Cardinals enter the 2012 season ranked 25th in the Associated Press Poll, the first time the Cardinals have been ranked since 2007. Strong knows with the ranking comes expectations, and the third-year head coach knows it's time to perform on the field.
"It does not matter what is said because you are able going to go prove it on Sunday," said Strong. "We have tried to block the noise out. I do not even talk about it; I do not even bring it up. We want our players to understand that the battle is won on the field. It does not matter where people rank you. About two weeks ago, I put up a sheet in a team meeting and I talked about teams that have been ranked and where they started the season and where they ended the season. Very few teams that were ranked No. 1 finished at No. 1 and very few teams that were ranked in the Top 25 finished in the Top 25."
Senior offensive tackle Alex Kupper, who was one of two players to start all 13 games on the offensive line, knows the talent is there, but that he and his teammates must continue to work hard and prove the program is ready to take the next step.
"We have to handle it one game at a time," said Kupper, who is playing his final season with the Cardinals. "We've only scratched the surface. We've got a lot of work to do. We want to go out and prove ourselves and that is something that we have as one of our team goals. We just have to show everybody that we mean business and we are ready to take the next step."
Strong relies on his leaders to keep the team heading in the right direction and not listen to the noise in the system. One of the concerns heading into the season was where the leadership was going to come from with just 10 seniors on the roster. However, Strong has been pleased with the direction his team has taken this fall.
"We are a young team and we have only 10 seniors," Strong said. "The seniors are doing a better job with leading. You have a group of guys that are trying to lead. But, because we have so many young players, I tell guys like Teddy (Bridgewater) and Preston (Brown) to not be afraid to be afraid and step up and a voice on this football team. At a point, you are all going to need each other. Right now, I told coaching staff to back away and see if someone will step up and lead this team. (Will) Stein does an unbelievable job with it."
The Cardinals are facing a huge challenge, opening the season against their rivals from down the road. Kentucky has won the last two meetings at home and four out of five in the series. The Cardinals are facing an experienced defensive line at Kentucky, which will give the Cardinals' experienced offensive line plenty of problems.
"Well, you look at Collins (Ukwu), who is an outstanding rusher, and (Donte) Rump and Mister Cobble in the middle; you are looking at two big guys you are going to have to move," Strong said. "We are going to want to run the football, so it is going to be our concern to move those guys out of the way and run the ball. If you are strong enough up front, which Kentucky is this year, it (UK) can create issues."
Kupper, who will be one of the guys going up against UK's defensive line, knows he and his big guys upfront must control the line of scrimmage if Louisville is going to win the game.
"(Donte) Rumph is a really big guy playing a three-technique and (Mister) Cobble - those are guys that have played for a really long time for them," said Kupper. "They have gone up against big-time offensive linemen. It is going to be a challenge and we just have to face it."
If the Cardinals are going to run their winning streak in the series to two games, Louisville must be able to get its running game on track, and the Cardinals have the stable of running backs to carry the load. The team that wins the ground game usually wins the game, and the Cardinals have a big advantage with three solid running backs in juniors Jeremy Wright, Dominique Brown and Senorise Perry.
"If a guy gets tired, we are always going to have someone we can put in," Strong said. "Each one of our running backs has a different ability. Jeremy Wright is a guy who has quickness, can catch the ball, and run behind his pads. Dominique (Brown) does not have the speed that Jeremy (Wright) or Senorise (Perry) have. Senorise has a ton of speed. Once he gets outside, he is going to be able to outrun a lot of people. But, each one of them brings a different ability to the table. We will play all three of them, but one guy will be the feature guy."
There are a lot of factors going into this rivalry game, but the Cardinals are ready to stop hitting one another, and putting their focus on playing one game at a time and reaching their goals.