LOUISVILLE, Ky. -
Senior Day elicits mixed emotions -- there's the knowledge that this is the last time they'll take center stage donning Louisville's colors. There's also fierce pride that each person invested so much emotionally and physically into the program.
Saturday will be the final home game for 13 University of Louisville football players, when the Cardinals host Connecticut in a noon kickoff at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. The following is a list of the seniors who will be playing their final home game on Saturday: Mario Benavides, Daniel Brown, Adrian Bushell, Bo Eggers, Stephen Goodwin, Nick Heuser, Alex Kupper, Nate Nord, Scott Radcliff, Andrell Smith, Will Stein, DeMarcus Topp and Chris Zelli.
“On Saturday, it’s going to be senior day, and just appreciate what they’ve done,” said head coach Charlie Strong. “If you look at this senior class, they have gone to three-straight bowl games. Last season, we were co-champions of the BIG EAST. You think about (Will) Stein, you think about (Alex) Kupper, you think about Mario (Benavides), Andrell (Smith), (Scott) Radcliff - those guys on offense have played their best football. Then, on defense with Daniel Brown having an injury early, (he) may be able to play these next games. If he’s not able to play against Connecticut, he will be ready for the Rutgers game. Then, with (Adrian) Bushell playing the way he’s played.”
The senior class was one of the smallest in the nation with just 10 on scholarship. Actually, of the 13 in the class, five of them entered the school as walk-ons. One of the most notable has been Alex Kupper, who has started every game the last two seasons.
Mario Benavides is one of 13 players participating in their final game at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium on Saturday.
“The senior class has been very important,” said Strong. “When we came in back in 2010, we talked about our foundation. I just feel this group is a part of us because they’ve been with us for three years and they have been a part of watching this program build. You cannot ask for a stronger group of seniors with the leadership they have provided this season.”
This senior class has been through a lot in their time at Louisville. During their freshmen season, they finished 4-8 overall and missed a bowl game for the third-straight season. They even experienced a coaching change, seeing Strong take over in 2010 with a whole different approach. While some players had difficulty adjusting or buying into the new mentality, the current senior class played a monumental role in the changing of the program’s perception.
“What you were able to do with this senior class is you have some really strong personalities,” said Strong. “I know this, Stein doesn’t play, but he has such a strong personality that guys will follow his lead. When he speaks, guys will listen to him. Even with Mario, (he) has a really strong personality and Bushell on defense. You were able to take three or four guys out of that senior class and those guys were able to stand up, speak and players would listen to them. So, they were able to take that leadership.”
And this group will have a heavy hand in the preparation for Saturday’s game as the team tries to rebound following a difficult 45-26 loss at Syracuse on Nov. 10. Strong believes the bye week came at a great time for the Cardinals, who saw their nine-game winning streak snapped and were knocked from the ranks of the unbeaten.
“You’re looking at a football team that is still 9-1,” Strong commented. “What we wanted to do in the bye week is get that game is behind us. The Syracuse game is behind us. Get that game away and then just focus on the next two. Just focus on ourselves and making ourselves and this football team better.”
With two games to play, the Cardinals have quite a bit at stake. They can win their second-straight league title with wins in their final two games, and also advance to their second BCS game in program history. That’s quite an accomplishment for a senior class, who three years earlier, was sitting home for the holidays and missed a bowl game for the first time in nine seasons.