Nov. 7, 2011
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Riding a wave of emotion and jubilation after a road win over 21st-ranked West Virginia on Saturday, the University of Louisville football team is facing another must-win situation if it is going to remain in the hunt for the BIG EAST title on Saturday at noon against Pittsburgh.
Despite giving up season highs in total yards of offense (533) and points (35), the Cardinals grabbed a signature win that is sure to move the program forward and give Louisville a boost in the BIG EAST standings. The hard-fought 38-35 victory over the Mountaineers' was Louisville's first win in Morgantown since 1990 and first over West Virginia since 2006.
Freshman Teddy Bridgewater was a major component in the win, completing 21-of-27 passes - a 77.7 completion percentage that ranks 10th-best in single-game performances - for a career-high 246 yards and a touchdown. On Sunday, he was tabbed the Rivals.com National Freshman of the Week.
"We needed to make a statement in this program," head coach Charlie said. "To go on the road in a tough environment with the football team we have, it was a big statement. We just want to make sure that we are headed in the right direction. We know that we still have a long ways to go. There is a lot of room for improvement.
"Defensively, we did not play as well as we've played the whole season on defense."
The Mountaineers came into the game ranked in the top 15 nationally in total offense, with one of the nation's top quarterbacks in Geno Smith, who threw for 463 yards against top-ranked LSU.
"That was a really good offensive football team," said Strong. "An offensive football team with a lot of speed and a veteran quarterback in Geno Smith. You look at the big plays that they had and it was the speed factor they had where they were able to get the mismatch. They were able to put (Tavon) Austin at the number three receiver where he was in the open field and making plays. But on defense, we were able to come away with three sacks. We had two big turnovers, which we were able to get the ball back for our offense to make it a short field. Then to go block a field goal by (Adrian) Bushell and then we picked the ball up with (An)drew Johnson and scored."
Trailing league-leading Cincinnati by a game in the conference race, the Cardinals face Pittsburgh on Saturday in the final home game for the 17-member senior class. The Cardinals, who have won three straight games, have three contests remaining, but this is the last game at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.
Sitting at 2-4 just three weeks ago, Strong didn't know where his young football team was headed after a loss to Cincinnati in the BIG EAST opener, but the team has responded with three BIG EAST wins to improve to 5-4 overall, 3-1 in the league.
"When you look at where we are right now, I didn't know what type of team we were going to have because we are so young," Strong. "I looked out there Saturday on the field and we lined up with eight freshmen on offense Saturday. There were four wide receivers and then you look at the offensive line with Jake Smith, (John) Miller, Jamon Brown and then Teddy at quarterback. At one point, you had eight freshmen there on offense. But I just never figured we would be in the position we are in because of our youth. I didn't know if the leadership was going to take over or not. I say to them all of the time, `You are no longer freshmen. We've played nine games. I expect us to improve each week and for us to get better.'
"A month ago, after you lose the Marshall game, we were sitting there and didn't know which direction we were going to go. We didn't know where we were going to fall to. Then, you go and win a game and then the confidence gradually starts to come back."
The Cardinals have played well at home in winning their last two conference games, taking a 16-14 decision over Rutgers and posting a 27-10 victory over Syracuse. After blowing a 16-7 lead against Cincinnati, the Cardinals season took a positive turn with the win over Rutgers. The Cardinals were clinging to a 16-14 lead late in the fourth quarter when Bridgewater threw a crucial interception that gave the Scarlet Knights the ball back. However, senior linebacker Dexter Heyman intercepted the ball in the final minute, which seemingly turned the season around.
The Cardinals played one of their most complete games the following week in the win over Syracuse. The Cardinals scored 14 first-quarter points and used a stifling defense to put the Cardinals in this position.
Despite the recent winning streak and momentum, Strong knows he can't start talking about bowls or BIG EAST championships with his youthful team because this is the same situation his team was in a year ago. In Strong's first season, the Cardinals were 5-4 with a home game against South Florida. U of L dominated the USF offense the entire game, but the Cardinals fell in overtime and dropped a game to West Virginia to fall to 5-6. Louisville had to go on the road at Rutgers to get bowl eligible, which Louisville did in a 40-13 romping of the Scarlet Knights.
"I haven't said anything about it," said Strong in reference to talking to his team about a bowl game. "We were in position last year and we lost to USF in overtime. It's the last game for our seniors at home, so I want to send them out the right way. We are just focusing on Pittsburgh and winning this game. It's a one game series each week and we are concentrating on one game at a time."
The players are taking the same approach as their head coach in the locker room. They are focusing on one game at a time, and that starts this week against Pittsburgh.
"No, we don't talk about it at because we don't want to get ahead of ourselves," said senior defensive tackle Greg Scruggs. "You start talking about a bowl and you go get kicked in the face for the last three games. The goal of the players is to take it one week at a time. Even the young guys are really trying to focus on one game at a time and kind of letting the season unfold as it may as opposed to putting things into place and thinking about things in the future."
Not only is Saturday a must win, it's Senior Day for a group that's gone to one bowl game and hasn't won on Senior Day since 2007.
Scruggs, who has been in the program since 2008, wants to walk off the field for the final time as a winner. He has seen the program go 5-7 in 2008, 4-8 in 2009 and 7-6 last season, so he wants to go out as a winner for the program.
"I don't want to get embarrassed in my final game," said Scruggs. "Two years ago, I wasn't in the same class as some of those guys, but we took the example of (Adam) Froman, (Bilal) Powell, (Byron) Stingly and (Doug) Beaumont. We have been through a lot, but we just want to ride this wave until the wheels fall off. We just want to go out and win this game, but we know the challenge we face this week against Pittsburgh. We remember what they did to us last year, so we know we have to be ready to play."