LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Head coach Charlie Strong is still trying to figure out where his team stands after four games. Sure, the Cardinals are 4-0 for the first time since 2006 and have an opportunity to reach 5-0 this Saturday with a critical road game at Southern Mississippi to close out their non-conference schedule.
After hanging on in the second half against North Carolina and a seven-point win at FIU last weekend, the Cardinals need to continue to improve if they are going to be the football team their head coach hopes they are going to be at the end of the year.
"We're going on the road for the second-straight week," said Strong. "What's going to be critical for us is that we maintain our focus, emotions and our confidence - play with confidence and compete."
The Cardinals moved up to 17th in the USA Today Coaches Poll, but Strong knows his team hasn't peaked yet, and his young team must continue to develop.
"Well, if you watch us the first three weeks, I thought we played really well," said Strong, who is 18-12 in three seasons with the Cardinals. "Coming into the fourth game, we didn't play at the tempo we've been playing at and we'd (the coaches) like to see us getting better. We didn't even practice well that week. Going into that game, I said, `We're not going to play well.' I said last week, it's a good thing we didn't beat that team by 21 points because we really would have had an issue going into game four."
The Cardinals aren't going to apologize for being undefeated after winning the last two games by a total of 12 points. Strong knows he has a young team with 10 sophomores in the starting lineup and only 10 scholarship seniors on the roster. He is still new in the building process, but likes the direction the program is heading in after just two-and-a-half seasons.
"You look at this team now," said Strong. "With us being into the program three years, it's our football team. The toughness is there and it's everything you're looking for. Those games we were losing by seven last year, we're winning by seven this season. Now that you've had them in your program, they understand how to compete. They're playing with confidence and that's what you like about this football team. You look at the past two seasons, this is a totally different football team."
Junior safety Hakeem Smith, who has been the leader of the defense the last two seasons, agrees with his head coach that the Cardinals can play better.
"Right now, we are not playing up at the level that we were playing in the spring during camp," said Smith, who was an all-BIG EAST performer last season. "There are a lot of guys that are new to this and I guess we have to realize that we are 4-0 and need to step it up."
The improvement of the team has to come on defense, where the Cardinals aren't as dominant as in the first two years under Strong. The Cardinals gave up their first 100-yard rusher in FIU's Jeremiah Harden, who tallied 102 yards. The concern for Strong's defense has been the inability to get to the quarterback. The Cardinals have only four sacks in the first four games, which is odd for a squad that has been one of the nation's bests the last two campaigns.
"If you look at us on defense, just because of the teams we've played with the spread offenses, we have been in the backfield, but we haven't finished with the sacks," said Strong. "The tackles for loss plays aren't showing up right now in the defensive stats, and that's what you would like to see is getting the tackles for losses and sacks and get off the field on third downs. They're completing some balls that we have to challenge. We have to challenge routes more."
Strong knows he has a good football team, but is still waiting to see if his squad will be great, which is the hope for all Louisville fans. In the first two years of Strong's tenure, the Cardinals usually began to show improvement during the second half of the season.
"You want to see us each week go get better and become a dominating team," said Strong. "If you look at it, we should have finished the game off against North Carolina and we didn't. A dominating team finishes that game off. They make the score whatever they want it to be. Next week, we go on the road and we could've played a lot better. We're up 28-14 and probably could have went and got some more scores."
Smith, who has seen how great the defense has been the last two seasons, but can see the defense getting better each week.
Said Smith, "It's like a reverse from last year; the defense is progressing, slowly but surely. We are going have to step it up for sure this year."