Last week, Louisville experienced the inevitable growing pains a rebuilding program faces in a tough 20-3 road loss against Big East favorite Pittsburgh.
Saturday against Syracuse it was clear the Cardinals learned a valuable lesson against the Panthers.
Despite the absence of their starting quarterback and leading rusher, Louisville took the fight to the Orange in a 28-20 upset win that snapped an 11-game Big East road losing streak.
If Charlie Strong has had a defining moment in his first season at Louisville this certainly was it. Louisville wasn't supposed to win this one. Not with Adam Froman and Bilal Powell out with injury. Not on the road. And certainly not against surging Syracuse, who had won three of four Big East games before Saturday's loss to the Cards.
Nine games into a major rebuilding effort, Strong's team showed Saturday that it could deliver a knockout punch against a quality opponent on the road with their backs against the wall. If there was any doubt that Strong's rebuilding effort was on the right track – there wasn't – Louisville's total team effort against Syracuse erased them.
"It was a total team effort," Strong said after his team's fifth win. "We had two of our best players down and I said to the team earlier in the week they have to believe in themselves. Everyone had to play 10 percent better than they had been playing and everyone played very well. We went on the road and beat us a good football team."
"I think Coach Strong believed in what we could do today," Justin Burke said. "We came in and decided to run the ball in the second half and it gashed them."
"If we can't gain an inch the way we were running the ball then there would be an issue," Strong said. "I did not think about punting at all. I told them we needed to get the first down. I told them we're going for it."
It was a bold decision, from a bold coach that paid off for his team.
While it was a total team effort from Louisville, Justin Burke, Jeremy Wright, and Louisville's veteran offensive line shined brightest for the the Cardinals.
Burke, who replaced Froman, managed the offense, didn't make mistakes and made throws when he had to. He completed 13 of 25 passes for 143 yards and two touchdowns. His eight yard touchdown pass to sophomore Andrell Smith gave Louisville a 14-7 lead in the first half, while his 21-yard scoring pass to Josh Chichester gave the Cardinals a 28-20 lead early in the fourth quarter.
"Burke had a tremendous game managing the game," Strong said.
Wright, a seldom-used redshirt freshman, stepped in for Powell and made a difference for the Cardinals. He carried 19 times for 98 yards, but more importantly scored two touchdowns. Wright's first score, a 28-yard run, gave Louisville an early 7-0 lead. His final touchdown early in the third quarter reclaimed the lead for Louisville at 21-17 – a lead the Cardinals never lost.
As tough as Wright ran against an Orange defense that has stuffed the run all season, significant credit goes to Louisville's veteran offensive line. That unit opened holes for a rushing attack that gained 160 yards despite the absence of star running back Bilal Powell, and gave Burke enough time to throw two touchdown passes.
"Our offensive line is a senior laden group and we can run the ball because we're a physical team," Strong said. "We needed to run the football and be physical to take the crowd out of the game. We took the crowd out of the game."
Strong's defense also stepped up with another solid performance. Louisville held Syracuse to nearly 80 yards below their season average and allowed just one field goal after halftime. The Cardinals limited the Orange to just 3.3 yards per carry and also forced and recovered a key fumble that set up Wright's first scoring run. But it was Louisville's pressure that surprised and kept the Orange offense off-balance all day.
"We brought a lot of pressure," Strong said. "Defensively, we know we are not very big. We know we are fast and we are quick and we can bring pressure."
Now, Louisville has a chance to do something else nobody thought possible – earn a bowl bid. The Cardinals need just one more win in their last three games to become bowl eligible. South Florida visits PJCS next weekend, followed by a home game against West Virginia. Louisville ends the season at Rutgers.
All three appear winnable, especially after Louisville's confidence building victory over Syracuse.
"Everybody was jumping around, coaches, trainers, managers, because we all knew this was a big win for us," said linebacker Daniel Brown.