Southern Miss.-Louisville Preview
An improved defense under first-year coach Charlie Strong has lifted Louisville into its first bowl game in four seasons.
Southern Miss will play in its ninth straight postseason game despite struggling to keep opponents off the scoreboard.
The former conference rivals meet for the first time in the postseason in the Beef O'Brady's Bowl in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Tuesday night.
Louisville went 12-1 in 2006 and won the Orange Bowl, but gave up at least 315 points in each of the next three seasons while posting a 15-21 record.
Looking to regain their '06 form, the Cardinals hired Strong, and the former Florida defensive coordinator wasted little time in engineering a turnaround. Louisville has given up 224 points this year and recorded two shutouts for the first time since 2004.
The Cardinals improved from 65th to 12th in the FBS with 304.7 yards allowed per game, but their resurgent defense didn't translate into a high win total. Louisville needed to beat Rutgers 40-13 on Nov. 26 to finish 6-6.
"I kept telling our guys you're a good football team. It's just a matter of believing it," Strong said. "Our guys just developed some confidence."
Strong's defense will face a Southern Miss offense that ranks 15th in the FBS with 37.6 points and 458.2 yards per game.
The Golden Eagles (8-4) rely heavily on that offense, as they are giving up an average of 29.4 points and allowed opponents to surpass 40 in five games. They yielded 97 points in splitting their final two contests.
"I thought there were some games that we played very well in defensively and there were some games that we did not," said coach Larry Fedora, an assistant at Florida with Strong from 2002-04. "In each of the three (Conference USA) games we lost, it did not matter that we scored 142 points, we still needed a few more."
Three members of that defense, Martez Smith, Tim Green and Deddrick Jones, were shot during a fight outside a nightclub Nov. 14. Smith, a linebacker who started four games this season, was left paralyzed from the waist down.
"Everything that I know right now is that they are still making good progress," Fedora said last month.
After a foot injury limited him to six games in 2009, junior Austin Davis threw for 2,898 yards and 18 touchdowns, while rushing for 436 and 10 TDs.
All-conference first-team receiver Johdrick Morris had a team-leading 46 receptions for 663 yards, and Kelvin Bolden had 667 yards on 41 catches.
Freshman Kendrick Hardy rolled up 676 of his team-best 855 rushing yards in the past six games, while Desmond Johnson matched Hardy with seven TDs on the ground and ran for 509 yards.
The Golden Eagles also have Groza Award finalist Danny Hrapmann, who converted 26 of 30 field-goal attempts. The third-team All-American was eight of 11 from 40 yards or more.
While Southern Miss knows who will play quarterback in the bowl game, Louisville's situation is a little murkier. Strong said he plans to start senior Justin Burke, but Adam Froman and Will Stein might also play.
Burke had 572 yards and seven TDs while starting the final four games after Froman injured his leg. Froman, who had 1,633 yards and 11 TDs in eight games, has returned to practice on a limited basis.
Froman threw for 248 yards and a 92-yard touchdown in a 25-23 comeback victory over Southern Miss last Oct. 10. The Cardinals won on a 32-yard field goal with 30 seconds left.
"All three guys understand the system, so you're comfortable with whoever the guy might be," Strong said. "All three guys can play."
Whoever starts can rely on all-conference senior running back Bilal Powell, second in the Big East with 1,330 yards. Powell had 58 yards on 10 carries against the Golden Eagles last season and scored on a 13-yard run.
Louisville has won four straight over its former C-USA rival but Southern Miss leads the series 18-9-1.