LOUISVILLE, Ky. -
Most head football coaches usually break the season down into a couple parts. First, they want to win the non-conference portion of their schedule, and second, they want to win their league.
The 16th-ranked Louisville football team won its non-conference schedule, going 5-0 for the first time since 2006. The Cardinals won their first three games at home and went on the road to win the last two, and now head to Pittsburgh this weekend on Oct. 13 to open up BIG EAST Conference action.
U of L head coach Charlie Strong loves the fact that his young football team made it through the non-conference schedule unscathed, but Strong knows the "real season" starts this Saturday at Pittsburgh, where the Cardinals have dropped their last two encounters.
"We've had one week off and now we start the real season, which I call it the real season because it is the conference season," said Strong. "And everything from here out counts. We're going to make it a one-game season. Our preparation during the off week was about fundamentals and about technique. We know as we approach this season that this new season as we are going to call it is so critical that we don't lose our focus and we maintain our preparation week in and week out."
The league is off to a great start with three undefeated teams and three ranked in the top-25 nationally. The Cardinals, the preseason favorite to win the league, are the last team to open up conference play.
"We know this is a very competitive conference and, each week, anyone can win," said Strong, who owns an 8-6 league record. "It is all about just preparation and it's all about making sure your team is prepared to go play. We just know how critical it is going to be because you see how competitive it is week in and week out. You just know right now you have to be prepared to go play."
Strong knows he must get his team ready to play if the Cardinals are going to begin league play at the top where other top-25 teams, Cincinnati and Rutgers, currently sit.
Jake Smith, who met with the media Monday, has helped anchor the offensive line this year.
"What has happened is we haven't had a chance to go play any conference games yet," said Strong. "But, we're ranked fairly high in the polls. You look at Rutgers, which is 2-0 right now in the conference. Cincinnati is 1-0 in the conference. But you have three teams that are undefeated. So, as we prepare to go down that road, we have to know this, we have to be prepared and get ready to go play."
The Cardinals take on a Pittsburgh team, which has the Cardinals' number of late, winning the last four meetings in the series. The Panthers, who dropped to 0-2 in the league with a 14-13 loss at Syracuse last weekend, have been trying to adapt to their third coach in three years.
"You watch them early in the season, I think that any time you have a coaching change kind of like where we were a few years ago, you are just really trying to find your team," said Strong. Then, you look at what they are trying to do just offensively. Now, I think they've really sunk in what they really want to do is trying to run the football with the back (Ray Graham) that they have. With the quarterback (Tino Sunseri), play-action to get the ball down the field. But you watch them against Virginia Tech, (they) scored a lot of points and moved the ball fairly well. Then, you watch the Syracuse game. They had a chance to go win that football game. They had their opportunities and just didn't take advantage of it."
Sophomore offensive guard Jake Smith knows the history between the Cardinals and Panthers and really understands the Cardinals have not fared too well over the last four years. The Cardinals fell 21-14 at home last year in Smith's first season as a starter, but he knows the struggles have been long-standing.
"Not only last year, but for the last six years, we haven't beaten Pitt since 2006," said Smith. "Traditionally, we're not very good against them, and that's one thing we have to be wary of. They do have a good football team, they're a good defensive team, and they're a very smash-mouthed offense. We're definitely aware of how we played last year, and we came out a little flat. I think it was pretty obvious to everybody."
One thing that could be a cause of concern could be the early 11 a.m. start, but Smith knows his undefeated football team can't use that as an excuse, and must be ready to face a solid Pittsburgh football team, who already defeated Virginia Tech this season.
"Well, we won't get home at four in the morning, so that might help," Smith joked. "We can't really control when we play, what time. Eleven o'clock is what draw we got, but I'm just happy we're on ESPNU and we're able to play in front of a national audience again."
Regardless of the start time, the Cardinals must excel for all four quarters if they're going to improve to 6-0 and remain among the nation's elite."