If Charlie Strong's 3-3 Cardinals hope to earn a bowl bid for the first time since 2006, they probably need a win over the visiting Huskies, especially after falling in their Big East opener last week to Cincinnati 35-27.
"We just have to continue to grow and this is a growing process for us," Strong said. "Guys need to understand how to win. I do not think our football team knows how to win."
Though Strong's program remains in the rebuilding process, the Cardinals have been competitive in each of their three losses this season to Kentucky, Oregon State and Cincinnati. Louisville lost to the Wildcats and Beavers by seven and fell by eight against the Bearcats. Those three teams played in bowl games last season.
Simply being competitive isn't good enough for Strong. He expects his team to win close games. Winning, however, is something his players are still learning how to do.
"Any time you take over a program, the first stage is to get guys to be competitive, and I think our guys know how to be competitive because they competed in each game up until now," Strong said. "The next stage is to teach guys how to win. We just do not know how to win yet. Once you teach them how to win, you have to teach them how to handle winning so they do not get big-headed when people pat them on the back. Then, you have to teach them how to be a champion.
"We are still in the first stage of teaching guys how to compete, and we are competing. Now, we have to take it to guys learning how to win. There are no moral victories; you have to win the football game. That is what is important and guys understand they have a job to do and they are expected to play well. We have to get the standard raised here and that is what we are looking to do. The only way to get the standard raised is to win football games."
After a close loss to Cincinnati, Louisville needs to prove it can win a Big East contest. The Cardinals have won just two league games in the past three seasons, including three straight losses against Connecticut.
"It is critical because you do not want to go 0-2 in the conference and lose at home two straight weeks," Strong said. "I challenged the fans and they were out and made a big difference in the game on Friday night. It was really great to see the fans to come out and support the program they way they did. It is their program, too. It is critical that we go play well, and we need to play well in this game on Saturday."
The key for both teams will be stopping the run. Bilal Powell and Uconn running back Jordan Todman, two of the best running backs in the nation, will face off on Saturday at PJCS. Todman has a slight edge over Powell and leads the Big East in rushing at 152 yards per game, while Powell averages 149 yards. Todman ranks third nationally in rushing and Powell is right behind in fourth position.
"They are very similar," Strong said. "They are a very physical football team who will pound you and try to knock you back. The running back is good and is similar to Bilal. He gets behind his pads and is quick enough to break away from people. On Saturday, it is going to come down to which team can stop the run."
Connecticut lost to Rutgers in their Big East opener two weeks ago, but had a bye week to prepare for the Cardinals.
"Louisville is a different team than we saw last year," Randy Edsell said. "We've been very impressed with Bilal Powell, if you had a chance to see that game the other night, you saw that he can run extremely well, he's powerful, he has speed, and I think he has three touchdowns over 75 yards this year. He's right behind Jordan (Todman) in yards per game. They're ranked number one in the BIG EAST in total offense. Defensively, they're very active. It's a tremendous challenge as we go down there and we need to get a win on the road."
The Huskies endured some turmoil this week with the suspension of starting quarterback Cody Endres for the rest of the season. Endres will be replaced by freshman Michael Box, who has thrown only five passes this season.
"He prepares well," Randy Edsall said. "He was always ready as a No. 2, even as a No. 3. He's exactly what I like. I like his leadership. I like what he brings to the table as a quarterback and his demeanor and how he interacts with all the other members of the offensive team and also the defense as well."
Endres wasn't Connecticut's only loss this week. Starting left offensive guard Erik Kuraczea left the team Tuesday for 'personal reasons.' Losing Endres and Kuraczea isn't good for a team facing a must win game and still searching for their first road win this season.
"You address those situations and you move forward," Edsall said. "You worry about the present. You don't worry about the past. That's what we're doing."
Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m., and the game will be televised on ESPNU.