It took Charlie Strong less than three years to put together an impressive turnaround at Louisville.
There’s still one thing on his to-do list: Beat Pitt.
The No. 18 Cardinals (5-0, 0-0 Big East) have just one shot left. And they’ll have to get up early to do it today when they face the Panthers (2-3, 0-2) at 11 a.m.
“I like that,” Strong said. “I like getting up.”
Strong will likely give his players a 6 a.m. wake-up call. Considering the way his team played in lackluster road wins over Florida International and Southern Miss, that’s probably not a bad idea.
The Cardinals struggled to put away both games, needing a late surge to beat Southern Miss in a monsoon and a clock-chewing drive in the fourth quarter to keep Florida International at bay.
Still, Louisville is 5-0 for the first time since 2006, the only year the Cardinals won the Big East. They had a chance to win it last fall, but a 21-14 home loss to Pitt – the fourth straight win by the Panthers’ in the series – helped derail any shot Louisville had at an outright league title.
The Cardinals haven’t forgotten.
“We’re definitely aware of how we played last year,” guard Jake Smith said. “We came out a little flat. I think it was pretty obvious to everybody.”
Louisville stresses it’s more mature this season and better capable of dealing with success. The Cardinals were the overwhelming favorite to grab the conference title, but have watched while the rest of the Big East got under way and No. 20 Rutgers and No. 21 Cincinnati surged to hot starts.
If it’s possible to be unbeaten and still an underdog, Strong believes the Cardinals are just that.
“Our theme right now is just to ‘stay hungry, stay humble,’ ” Strong said. “If we just stick with that theme then we feel like that’s the personality we’re trying to draw.”
The Cardinals are well down a road the Panthers hope to travel as they prepare to jump to the ACC next fall. First-year head coach Paul Chryst is in the process of overhauling the roster and reshaping a culture that’s been rattled by upheaval.
Pitt remains very much a work in progress, and Chryst understands that progress isn’t necessarily measured strictly by wins. In the span of a month, the Panthers’ loss to Youngstown State, crushed then-No. 13 Virginia Tech and basically gave away a 14-13 defeat to Syracuse last week.
The Orange jumped to a two-touchdown lead in the first quarter, but the Panthers controlled the rest of the game. They just couldn’t score enough points. Twice in the fourth quarter they moved into scoring range and twice they came up empty.
The first drive ended with two penalties and a sack that pushed Pitt out of field goal range. The second ended with two sacks and an incomplete pass to push the Panthers back from the Syracuse 17 to the 41.
Looking back, Chryst allows maybe he should have gone in a different direction.
“If you knew then what you know now, then yeah I think I’d quarterback sneak it three times,” he said with a laugh. “It was just bad execution, which goes on us as coaches.”
Despite the late-game meltdown, Chryst believes the Panthers are miles ahead of the team that was blown out by Cincinnati a month ago. The Cardinals, meanwhile, have backtracked just a bit.
Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater hasn’t looked nearly as sharp on the road as he did during three home wins to start the year and Louisville has allowed overmatched teams to hang around late into games.
Pitt marks perhaps Louisville’s first true test, one the Cardinals haven’t passed since 2007. No current Louisville player has walked off the field a winner against the Panthers during his collegiate career.
“Traditionally, we’re not very good against them and that’s one thing that we really have to be a wary of because they do have a good football team,” Smith said. “They’re a good defensive team and they’re a very smashmouth offense.”
One that should get a shot in the arm with the return of freshman running back Rushel Shell, who sat out the Syracuse game with back spasms. Shell helped propel the Panthers by Virginia Tech with 157 yards, most of them bruising runs up the middle.
Shell and Ray Graham will need to take some pressure off Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri, who has put together stellar numbers but still struggles in the face of a blitz.
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