That was evident after Louisville's 20-3 loss to Pittsburgh, which sits atop the Big East with a 3-0 record after dispatching the Cardinals Saturday at Heinz Field.
Louisville came into the game with a 1-1 Big East record and hoped to measure up against the team picked to win the league before the start of the season. But the Panthers showed why Louisville isn't ready to challenge for the Big East title just yet, holding the Cardinals to 185 yards total offense.
There's no question Louisville has made progress in Strong's first eight games. With four games left to play, the Cardinals have already matched last years win total. While Strong's defense has shutout two opponents so far this season, the offense under offensive coordinator Mike Sanford's direction is ranked near the top of the Big East in rushing, passing, scoring and total offense.
So what happened at Pittsburgh? Simple. Louisville was beaten by a better team.
"We took a step backward," Strong said during his post-game radio show. "[Bad] field position and penalties finally caught up with us. The penalties that we had kept the offense in the hole all day. Defensively we just didn't get off the field on third down."
Pitt defensive end Jabaal Sheard was the major difference in the game. He caused havoc for Adam Froman and the Louisville offense all day, and was a big reason why the Panthers held UofL to three points and provided Froman a day he'd rather forget. Not only did Sheard sack Froman twice, he also made three tackles for loss and forced two fumbles, including the one that set up Pittsburgh's game-clinching touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
Louisville's offense now has to go back to the drawing board this week before heading to surprising Syracuse, which improved to 3-1 in the Big East after beating Cincinnati. Since scoring three touchdowns in the first half of the Big East opener against Cincinnati, UofL has scored just one offensive touchdown in the last 10 quarters.
"We've got to get touchdowns," Strong said. "We just had no consistency on offense."
Though the offense has struggled to score touchdowns against Big East competition, Strong's defense has played admirably. A week after blanking Connecticut, the defense did their best to give Louisville a chance against Pittsburgh.
Louisville's defense was the main reason the Cardinals trailed just 6-3 at halftime. And despite giving up touchdowns of the Panthers first two possessions in the second half, the second one after Froman's fumble was returned to the five yard line, Louisville limited Pitt to 255 total yards, while largely holding the Panthers' Big Three of Ray Graham, Jon Baldwin and Dion Lewis in check.
Now, Louisville has to regroup before heading off to play Syracuse. Despite a 1-2 league record, the Cardinals still can finish strong and go to a bowl game. UofL has four games remaining against Syracuse, USF, West Virginia and Rutgers. All four appear winnable games.
If Louisville hopes to finish strong, they'll need Big East leading rusher Bilal Powell. Powell left the game in the third quarter Saturday with a knee injury, and though he was seen riding a stationary bike on the sideline after the injury, he didn't return to action. After the game, Strong said he didn't know the extent of his injury.