Louisville-South Florida Preview
Louisville coach Charlie Strong doesn't believe his team's season is lost after one defeat.
The American Athletic Conference championship and the automatic BCS bowl berth that comes with it remain in play for the No. 18 Cardinals (6-1, 2-1) despite last Friday's stunning 38-35 upset loss to Central Florida. But they'll need help from teams above them in the standings, and the Cardinals have little to no room for error.
The upside is the schedule seems to line up well for them with consecutive road games at South Florida (2-4, 2-0) on Saturday and winless Connecticut on Nov. 8. Louisville's challenge now is winning the games it's supposed to after the devastating loss that dashed lofty hopes of a shot at the national championship and dampened the Heisman Trophy buzz for junior quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
"We still have five games to play and that's why I tell the team it's so important that you go game by game and worry about the task at hand and not about what everyone else says," Strong said Monday.
"It's so hard for young guys to understand that because they listen to what everyone else says, and then all of a sudden when you get slapped in the face, you get a wakeup call. This will be a good wakeup call for them."
Judging from some players' postgame demeanor, the Cardinals seemed ready to move forward immediately after blowing a 28-7 lead, then reclaiming it, only to lose it again in the final minute. Bridgewater was already looking ahead to USF and Strong said he hasn't had to remind them of the opportunity they lost.
On the other hand, Louisville's fourth-year coach conceded that he has needed more time to digest the setback. Strong said he didn't sleep Friday night and avoided watching games over the weekend.
Three days later, the loss still seemed to gnaw at him.
"It lingers, but I have to move on myself," Strong said. "A lot of times, they're going to react the way I react. I told them Sunday to put it to rest and get ready for South Florida. We can't let this game beat us twice."
Louisville's road back to league contention begins in Tampa against a USF squad coming off a bye following its 13-10 win at UConn. The Bulls have beaten the Huskies and Cincinnati without scoring an offensive touchdown, returning fumbles to the end zone against each.
Offsetting a young offense that has scored just six TDs under first-year Bulls coach Willie Taggart is a defense that ranks fourth in the AAC (360.5 yards per game) and has recovered seven fumbles. Junior kicker Marvin Kloss has made nine of 10 field goals, including a 52-yarder, and ranks sixth in league scoring with 37 points.
Whether Louisville can take advantage of a USF team in transition depends on if the Cardinals tackle better than they did in the second half against UCF. Though Strong credited the Knights' speed and talent for UCF's ability to rally from a 21-point deficit, he also blamed bad angles and positioning by his Cardinals for some of the missed stops that resulted in big gains.
Ranked third nationally in sacks going into the game against UCF, the Cardinals recorded none - nor any tackles for loss - and allowed the Knights to convert 5 of 11 third-down opportunities after entering having limited opponents to just 24.1 percent.
After letting a game that seemed to be in hand slip from its grasp, Strong expects his defense to bounce back at USF. And while the Cardinals' climb back to the top is steeper, there's still a lot to play for.
Whether it results in a league title or a BCS bid depends on the Cardinals handling their business first to keep pressure on leaders Houston, UCF and USF.
"We still have a chance to end up with an outstanding season and end up the way you want it," Strong said.
Louisville had its hands full with the Bulls last season, needing an 11-yard TD pass from Bridgewater to Eli Rogers with 1:35 left to come away with a 27-25 win.
"They're a football team and they put on pads just like the rest of us," Taggart told the Bulls' official website. "We didn't put that ranking on them, someone else did that. We have to show up and we have to play."