LOUISVILLE, Ky. — After opening with two dominant victories, No. 19 Louisville expects a tougher test from North Carolina.
The Cardinals seek their first 3-0 start since 2006, a season that culminated in their only Bowl Championship Series victory against Wake Forest in the Orange Bowl. That postseason scenario is a long way off. Louisville first wants to make sure victories against in-state rival Kentucky and FCS-member Missouri State are true indicators of how good the Cardinals can be.
Not only are the Tar Heels (1-1) a good measuring stick, they’re the Cardinals’ last home game before a three-game road stretch at FIU, Southern Mississippi and Pittsburgh.
So Louisville coach Charlie Strong has more than enough to motivate his team for the Big East-Atlantic Coast Conference matchup.
“This is great test for our program,” Strong said Monday. “I think this weekend we will find exactly where we are as a football program.”
Despite beating Kentucky 32-14 in the opener and Missouri State 35-7 on Saturday, Strong said he’s still looking for consistency from his young Cardinals.
“When you look at a team that is a nationally ranked team, you’d like to say you are a junior-senior team and we’re not there yet,” Strong said, noting that his Cardinals have just nine seniors.
“We’re still growing, we’re still maturing. I really don’t know where we are right now.”
Junior defensive lineman Brandon Dunn calls Saturday’s matchup a “respect game,” knowing that they’ll have to knock off a BCS conference opponent with NFL-caliber talent to truly be taken seriously.
“I guess some of the people in the country don’t give us enough respect,” Dunn said. “They probably think we don’t play anybody. This week, we should solve that.”
Louisville should find out where it stacks up this weekend against a team Strong says is “one of the biggest football teams we’ve faced” since his arrival in 2010.
“You look at it, it’s an (Atlantic Coast Conference) opponent coming in here that just has some tradition about them. It’s a big football team and they’re going to look good. It has to be a physical game for us.”
Louisville lost 14-7 in Chapel Hill last season — a score that is already plastered throughout the Louisville football complex as motivation — but the Tar Heels will offer a different look this year under first-year coach Larry Fedora.
North Carolina lost 28-27 at Wake Forest last Saturday after cruising past Elon 62-0 in its opener.
Strong and Fedora were the defensive and offensive coordinators, respectively, at Florida from 2003-04. In 2010, with Fedora coaching Southern Mississippi and Strong in his first season at Louisville, the two met in the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl with the Cardinals rallying for a 31-28 win.
“You want to make sure that when you come into a game like this one that guys understand just the level, just how big a game it is,” Strong said.
“What I try and tell them, ‘You’re the 19th-ranked team in the country, that’s what the peers think of you. So now if people think that you are the 19th-ranked team in the country, let’s start carrying ourselves like it and start acting like it.'”
Strong said carrying itself like a ranked team means his players have to fully believe that they are deserving of the accolades. Only then can they hope to bring the program back to its 2006 heights.
“If you say you want to change the culture, if you say you want to change the program, this is a great opportunity to go do it now,” he said.
Strong may not yet know how good his team but did say they’re deserving of their newfound status because of the hard work they’ve put in to reach this point in rebuilding the program.
“We’re still getting up early to go work out,” he said. “We do a lot of things that a lot of teams don’t do and we feel like that gives us another edge for us to go win the games.”