Charlie Strong's program could take another huge leap forward Saturday against South Florida, as a win would make the Cardinals bowl eligible for the first time in three seasons.
Since going to nine straight bowl games between 1998-2006, Louisville missed out on post-season play the last three years. Now, if Strong's Cardinals can notch back-to-back Big East wins for the first time since 2006 they'll likely be back in bowl business this season.
"A bowl game would be huge and it is the goal every time you go into a season," said Justin Burke, who will make his second straight start against USF. "We just want to go and win this next game. Bowl eligibility is good, but we still have three Big East games to win."
Burke is correct, bowl eligibility would be a tremendous achievement for Strong's team. Louisville was picked near the bottom of the Big East preseason standings and most publications predicted the Cards to win only three or four games this season.
"We have to get the pride back," Burke said. "We were missing the pride in ourselves. We were missing the pride in being top-notch players for a top-notch team. Coach Strong wants to get this program back to where it needs to be and should be. With his high standards, you have no choice on this football team but to meet them. To get to Coach Strong's standards, you have to up your own. He is the right man for the job here and has instilled this in everybody on this team."
Burke filled in admirably for Adam Froman last week, throwing for 143 yards and two touchdowns. With Froman still out with a lower extremity injury sustained late in the game at Pittsburgh two weeks ago, Louisville needs another solid outing from Burke.
"Burke did a really good job of managing the offense. It is good that he had that success because we (will) need him again down the stretch here," said Strong. "It was good to see him play so well. He is very smart and knows he offense. He plays within his limitations and knows how far he can throw the football. He knows where to place the football."
Though Froman will miss his second consecutive game, Bilal Powell, the team's leading rusher, could be back on the field Saturday after suffering a knee injury against Pitt. Powell, who missed last weeks game against Syracuse, is officially listed as questionable against USF, but practiced Thursday.
While Powell's productivity has been a big reason for Louisville's turnaround this season, Strong's defense also deserves credit.
Before the season, Strong's undersized and inexperienced defense was supposed to be the teams biggest weakness. But somehow, Strong and defensive coordinator Vance Bedford have put together a unit than ranks 19th nationally in total defense. Louisville's defense has shutout two opponents this season and held five teams under 300 yards total offense. In their last three Big East games, the Cardinals have allowed only 235 yards total offense per game and four touchdowns.
"Defensively, we do not really pay attention to stats," Strong said. "We know we have to go out and outplay the other team's defense. We got a lot of pressure [against] Syracuse and we blitzed a lot. We have to move guys because we are small. We try to put guys who can make plays in position to make plays. We just try to get pressure and we will pressure teams. They are getting more confidence. When you win games, the confidence continues to grow."
Louisville will need another solid defensive effort against B.J. Daniels, USF's dangerous signal caller. Daniels dominated the Cardinals last season, throwing for 304 yards and rushing for 143 in South Florida's 34-22 win.
"Their quarterback B.J. Daniels is very good," Strong said. Offensively, he can beat you with his arm or his feet. They have gotten back in rhythm in their past two games in putting up a lot of points. They are playing very well."
Louisville also must have another solid performance from their veteran offensive line. Starting center Mario Benavides is questionable with an ankle injury, and the Cardinals will be challenged by a stout USF defense ranked No. 29 in the nation in total defense and 16th nationally in sacks (2.88) per game.
"Defensively, they put a lot of pressure on you similar to us," Burke said. "They are very athletic. They are also well coached. I was at NC State when we played a Skip Holtz coached ECU team. They are going to come and play hard. They have some great pass rushers and some great linebackers. We are going to have a tough time with the secondary obviously because they are so talented."
Kick-off is scheduled for 12 p.m. The game will be televised by ESPNU.