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Louisville can claim Big East by beating Rutgers

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP)

A rough November for Louisville still can end positively for the slumping Cardinals.

A victory at first-place Rutgers (9-2, 5-1) on Thursday night would not only snap a two-game losing streak, but give Louisville (9-2, 4-2) the Big East championship and the conference's berth in the Orange Bowl. The Cardinals hold all the tiebreakers: so a win and they're in.

Over the past two weeks, Louisville has looked like anything but a team that controlled its own destiny.

Louisville lost to Syracuse on Nov. 10. In the Cardinals' triple-overtime loss to Connecticut on Saturday, star quarterback Teddy Bridgewater broke his wrist. The setback knocked Louisville out of the Top 25.

With their reprieve, coach Charlie Strong wants the Cardinals focused on what they can win, not what they have lost.

''What we really have to understand is we have a chance to go win a conference championship,'' Strong said Monday. ''We have a chance to go play in a BCS bowl game and also have a chance for a 10-win season.''

With the Big East's first-ever championship game coming next season, Thursday's contest will serve as a de facto title contest.

Though Strong said he didn't expect this game to carry such importance when the season started, he knew it was a possibility as Louisville and Rutgers entered the month unbeaten in league play.

Disappointed as the Cardinals were after Saturday's loss because of the missed opportunity to tie the Scarlet Knights - who fell 27-6 at Pittsburgh - they were consoled by remaining within a game of the league leaders.

''After the game we were wrapping everything up and coach gave us a little light by saying that Rutgers lost,'' wide receiver Damian Copeland said.

Having Bridgewater available is another ray of hope in Louisville's quest to end its slump.

Bridgewater broke his left wrist while being sacked by Connecticut linebacker Sio Moore in the second quarter but returned with a cast on it to rally Louisville from a 10-0 deficit in the fourth and force overtime. He threw an interception in the third OT to set up the Huskies' game-winning field goal in a 23-20 victory.

Though the injury prevents the sophomore from taking snaps under center and eliminates Louisville's play-action options, he can direct the offense from the shotgun, pistol and offset formations. Senior Will Stein, who relieved Bridgewater while he was being treated and took a snap from under center near the goal line in overtime, could be used as well.

''These past two practices he's just been going through his reads, just relaxing and trying to get back as close to 100 percent as he can,'' Stein said of Bridgewater.

No matter who plays quarterback, Louisville needs a better rushing attack than it has shown the past two games. The Cardinals have combined for 75 yards during the losing streak, including just 27 on Saturday.

''We have to run the football, that's who we are,'' Strong said. ''If you look at Saturday, we were not effective at all.

''We have to get our run game going. You're going to have to move people and just come off and attack people and make sure we have the right plays called. It's about doubling guys and just moving them out of the way.''

Louisville also aims to stop a couple other troubling streaks against Rutgers. The Cardinals have trailed in the past eight games and Saturday was their second straight in which they fell behind early.

Their most recent deficit carried last more than three periods and put Louisville on the brink of being shut out before Bridgewater rallied the Cardinals in the fourth quarter to set up overtime. That's not a luxury they can afford at Rutgers and with so much on the line.

At least the Cardinals know they can win in New Jersey. Louisville has won the past two against Rutgers including a 40-13 rout in Piscataway two years ago.

Making it three in a row depends on how well the Cardinals can put their recent struggles behind them. In spite of everything that has happened, they still can achieve their preseason goal of winning the conference.

''Our confidence isn't shaken,'' Strong said. ''We've won nine games and have dropped the last two, but confidence is not an issue. But you always want to talk about confidence because when you go on the road. ... you have to walk in there knowing you can win the football game.''

Tagged: Rutgers, Connecticut, Louisville, Will Stein, Teddy Bridgewater

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