Flying high above the competition
Senior College Football Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
The Louisville Cardinals were the class of Conference USA during John L. Smith's six years at the helm, winning nearly twice as many games as they lost.
The Cardinals went to a bowl game every year under Smith (1998-2002), but only won one of them with a 28-10 decision versus BYU in the 2001 Liberty Bowl. After logging a 7-6 record in 2002, Smith decided to take the head coaching job at Michigan State, and Louisville turned to one of its former offensive coordinators in Bobby Petrino, and the team soared to new heights by winning no fewer than nine games a season, amassing a record of 41-9 from 2003-06.
Petrino, who is one of the more controversial figures in the college coaching ranks, led the Cardinals to an 11-1 overall record and the C-USA title in 2004, which was their final year in the league as they flew off to join the Big East.
The Cards went 9-3 in 2005, before really taking flight a year later when they posted a 12-1 mark and won the Big East championship. The team was rewarded for that stellar campaign with its first-ever BCS Bowl bid, and Petrino's club defeated Wake Forest in the 2007 Orange Bowl, 24-13.
Just a few days after that landmark victory, Petrino left the team to become the head coach of the NFL's Atlanta Falcons. While disappointed by Petrino's decision just six months after signing him to a lucrative contract extension, the UofL administration wasted little time in naming his replacement, handing the job to former Tulsa head man Steve Kragthorpe.
The relationship, which many believed would work based on Kragthorpe's prior success and the talent still in place at Louisville following arguably the best season in program history, simply didn't as the Cardinals went a meager 15-21 in Kragthorpe's three years in charge. Their run of nine straight years in which they posted a winning record and earned postseason invites after each was over, the team never finishing higher than fifth place in the Big East with Kragthorpe calling the shots.
Kragthorpe was relieved of his duties in November of 2009, and the school hired former South Carolina and Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong to get the Cardinals back on track. While having built a solid reputation as a first-rate assistant, the jury was out on just how well Strong would do considering the rebuilding process that lie ahead.
While not enjoying Petrino-type success just yet, Louisville has posted back- to-back 7-6 seasons, gone to two straight bowl games, and earned a share of the Big East crown in 2011.
This year's team is off to 3-0 start for the first time since 2006, and after opening with three consecutive home games, the Cardinals hit the road this week to play at FIU. Strong typically gets his team fired up to play in enemy territory, the Cards having gone 7-4 in such bouts the previous two years.
Strong, whose team will actually play its next three games away from home, spoke recently about the challenges the Cardinals will face now that they've gotten a handful of bouts under their belt.
"After three home games, we are going to hit the tough part of our schedule. Now, we are going to be away from home actually for a month. We go two (road games). Then we go to an open week. Then we go to Pittsburgh. What is going to be critical at this time is we maintain our focus. We maintain our emotion and we are going to have to play with confidence and compete. Every second has to count."
It's no mystery why Louisville has been successful this season, as the team is getting it done on both sides of the ball in averaging a Big East-best 35.3 ppg, while yielding just over 18 ppg.
Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater ranks second in the conference in passing, as he has completed a staggering 81.8 percent of his throws (72-of-88) for 285.0 ypg. The sophomore signal-caller has thrown five touchdown passes to five different receivers, and he has yet to be intercepted. The UofL run game boasts a pair of capable backs in juniors Senorise Perry and Jeremy Wright, the two nearly mirroring each other in churning out roughly 88 ypg and combining for seven scores.
Defensively, the team's strength has been its ability to curtail the opposition's rushing attack, doing so to the tune of 79.7 ypg. The Cardinals have not allowed a rushing touchdown to this point, and they have been particularly stingy at the start of games, as foes have yet to score a single point in the first quarter.
Strong knows that in order for his team to continue the positive direction its headed, playing as a cohesive unit, in all phases of the game, is imperative.
"We have to be disciplined and do what we are coached to do," said Strong. "Then, play together. It's going to be critical. So, as a team, you have to play together. And it's going to be a great challenge for us."
With West Virginia no longer in the Big East, this year's conference crown is there for the taking, and the Cardinals have as good a chance as anyone.
The pending loss of Syracuse and Pittsburgh to the ACC, coupled with the announced additions of Houston, SMU, UCF, Boise State, San Diego State and Navy, will morph the Big East into something completely different than it is today. But even with all the changes, the future looks bright for Strong and his flock.