Cards preparing for 'Big' East opener

Charlie Strong made no bones Monday that the Cardinals Friday night ESPN game against two-time defending Big East champion Cincinnati is a "big" one for his program. After a 56-0 win over Memphis Saturday, the Louisville coach is eager to find out how good his team is against the Bearcats.

Louisville coach Charlie Strong made no bones Monday that the Cardinals Friday night ESPN game against two-time defending Big East champion Cincinnati is a "big" one for his program.

Since a season-opening loss to Kentucky, Strong's team has won three of their last four games, including a dominating 56-0 victory over rival Memphis last Saturday. At 3-2, Louisville hopes to get off to quick start in the wide-open Big East race this week against the Bearcats.

"It's a big game because we've made it a big game," Strong said. "Our players have made it a big game because of the way they've worked and played the last few weeks."

Louisville enters the Big East opener playing their best football since the Bobby Petrino era. While the Cardinals shutout of Memphis was the program's first since 2006, the offense has made significant progress and is putting up Petrino-like numbers under offensive coordinator Mike Sanford.

Now, Strong is eager to find out just how good his team really is against a quality opponent in Cincinnati.

"Have we improved from the Kentucky game? Yes, we have," Strong said. "It's really critical now that we continue to play well in the conference. The team has gotten better each game. Offensively we have performed well each game. Defensively, we've had our ups and downs. So we're looking for consistency."

Louisville seemed to find the consistency Strong had been seeking against Memphis. Though the Cardinals had strung together good stretches against Eastern Kentucky, Oregon State and Arkansas State, they hadn't put it all together for 60 minutes until their rout against the Tigers.


Bilal Powell leads a potent Louisville ground attack.
"It's conference play now for us," Strong said. "What we've done is broken the season into three phases. Phase one was Kentucky. Phase two was Eastern Kentucky, Oregon State, Arkansas State and Memphis. Now we're into the phase three."

With an automatic BCS going to the Big East champion, phase three is obviously the most important part of the season for Strong's ascending program.

"The thing about phase three is every game counts," Strong said. "It's a conference game and it's at home. In order for us to win this game everyone is going to have to perform. The fans are going to have to perform and we have to perform on offense, defense and the kicking game."

While Louisville has been out of the spotlight the past two weeks, relegated to playing Arkansas State and Memphis on ESPN3.com, the Cardinals get another shot at ESPN prime time Friday night against Cincinnati.

"This is the first Friday game I've ever dealt with," Strong said. "What you do is you don't get that day off [after the game]. So we came in and practiced on Sunday and we'll treat today like a work day. Normally, Tuesday is a work day."

With more than just the Keg of Nails at stake, Strong implored Louisville fans during his press conference Monday afternoon to show up in force Friday night and create a hostile environment for the visiting Bearcats. Despite great weather and homecoming, only 48,427 fans showed for Saturday's game against Memphis – about 6,000 below capacity at PJCS.

"We need to get the fans in the stadium," Strong said. "You look at Saturday, and some of our players asked me, 'Where are all of our fans?' [If] they're here, let's get them in the stadium."

After a good start this season, Louisville's confidence is on the rise. Still, the Cardinals must prove to themselves that they can win in a league that hasn't been kind to them the past three years. Since 2007, UofL has won just five of 21 league games, including a 41-10 loss to Cincinnati last season.

"We're 3-2 right now and we just need to play well," Strong said. "We haven't played well in the conference for the last three years. It's early, but we want to get a good start in the conference."

Kickoff for Friday nights game is set for 8:00 at PJCS.


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