LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Three years ago only seems longer than it was for Louisville football. The Charlie Strong era began with a thud; a 23-16 loss to rival Kentucky at home in the first game at renovated Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium was not how the Cardinals faithful envisioned things going.
Single games can be defining moments, however. For Strong and his fledgling program, it was just a first game. The last game Louisville played, now that’s the one that has people talking.
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The Cardinals finished in a four-way tie for the Big East championship with Cincinnati, Rutgers and Syracuse but earned the conference’s automatic BCS bowl game bid and went on to surprise everyone but themselves by beating Florida 33-23 in a game that wasn’t that close. Led by junior quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville is a consensus top-10 pick in preseason polls.
As big of a job as Strong had in raising the program from those first steps, reining in the expectations of this season could be a bigger task.
“I tell them all the time, guys, the measuring stick of this team is going to be measured to that Florida game. And we played very well in that game. So now everyone is going to expect you to play each game the way you played in that game, and it’s not going to happen,” said Strong at the American Athletic Conference media day. “So let’s not get full of ourselves and let’s not think that we have all the answers because the moment you do, you will walk into a game, you’ll get into a week where you won’t practice well and you’ll go get it put on you pretty good. And then that would be a wake-up call. We don’t need any wake-up calls. We need to hit the alarm button before somebody comes in there and puts it on us really good.”
Louisville was the media’s preseason pick to win the American, ahead of Cincinnati. The two teams will play the regular season finale at Nippert Stadium on Dec. 5. This is Louisville’s one season in the conference before joining the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2014.
As much talent as the Cardinals have returning, paramount to their success is going to be keeping Bridgewater healthy. The offensive line is Strong’s biggest concern as preseason preparations for the Sept. 1 opener against Ohio continue.
The Cardinals were already pleased with their running back group, even though top backs Dominique Brown and Senorise Parry are coming back from knee injuries, before it was announced that former Auburn running back Michael Dyer was transferring to Louisville. Dyer was the MVP of the BCS national championship game in 2011 when Auburn beat Oregon but troubles off the field, including drug and gun incidents, got him kicked off the teams at Auburn and Arkansas State.
Dyer spent last year at Arkansas Baptist College and earned his associate’s degree there, making him immediately eligible to play this season.
“He’s fit in great,” said Brown, from Winton Woods High School in Cincinnati. “He adds something we’ve never had. For two years he was a 1,000-yard rusher so we’re trying to get to where he once was. National championship, he played on a big stage, he was the national championship MVP so he’s bringing a lot of stuff like that. He’s been there. We’re trying to get over that hump.”
Brown quarterbacked Winton Woods to the Ohio Division II state championship as a senior in 2009 in an explosive triple-option offense. While the transition to running back isn’t a great one for him, he’s still had to learn different nuances running the ball in a pro style offense. He played sparingly as a true freshman in Strong’s first season but was utilized greater as a sophomore when he was just learning those nuances.
That year’s game at Kentucky, a 24-17 Louisville win, stood out to Brown for more reasons than the 91 yards he gained on 14 carries.
“I ran out of bounds and (running backs) coach (Kenny) Carter ripped me,” said Brown. “He said you’re a running back now and we don’t do that stuff. I think it was more of a mental thing. I had more of quarterback mentality. I wasn’t being as physical as they wanted me to be.”
Preston Brown (no relation) is another Cincinnati native who has grown up with Strong’s program. Brown started as a true freshman out of Northwest High School against Kentucky in the 2010 opener.
“That lasted about four plays,” linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary recalled.
Brown survived that first game. He played in every game the rest of the season and has been a starter since his sophomore season. He was named second team All-Big East last season as the middle linebacker.
“Because of the situation we were in with the program, he had start out of necessity because we didn’t have a lot of bodies,” said Jean-Mary. “We probably threw him into the mix a little too early but it was trial by fire and he’s grown from there. He’s had to play all three positions, which is stunting his growth a little bit but you could really see him coming into his own toward the latter half of last year and he’s progressed from there. He is one of the rocks of our defense and we feel he’s got a chance to be one of the better players in the conference.”