After consecutive home losses to USF and West Virginia the last two weekends, it's come down to this for the Cardinals: Beat the Scarlet Knights and likely go bowling for the first time since 2006 or get ready for spring practice.
"It's not about the past, it's not about the future," Strong said. "We have to live in the present and get this done right now."
Louisville hasn't fared well recently in games with bowl eligibility on the line, dropping their last seven contests in those situations. In 2008, Louisville started the season 5-2, before losing their final five games of the season. That season also ended at Rutgers, with Greg Schiano's team blowing out Steve Kragthorpe's Cardinals 63-14.
Charlie Strong hopes for a different outcome Friday. Louisville, though, has missed two chances to become bowl eligible already this season, including a narrow overtime loss two weeks ago to South Florida.
Friday's tilt with Rutgers represents the last chance for Louisville's 24 seniors to secure a bowl bid. While a win won't guarantee a bowl game for the Cardinals, it would position them to secure one of the Big East's six bowl slots, likely either the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala., or the Beef O'Brady's Bowl in St. Petersburg, Fla. That would be a significant achievement for a team picked to finish last in the league.
Since an inspired road win against Syracuse earlier this month, Strong has seen his offense stagnate in its last two games without starting quarterback Adam Froman, who is out with a leg injury. To make matters worse, leading rusher Bilal Powell was limited to just four carries with the flu in last Saturday's 17-10 loss to the Mountaineers.
Powell is expected to be near full strength for the Cardinals tilt against Rutgers. That's good news for a Louisville offense that was held to a season-low 171 yards against West Virginia, including 26 on the ground.
"Bilal should be ready to play," Strong said. "He had the flu-bug last week, but should be ready to play."
With Froman and Powell battling injuries, Louisville's offense has dipped in the season's last month. After recording more than 400 yards total offense in four of their first six games, Louisville's highest output in the last five games was a 328-yard effort against USF. Twice, against Pittsburgh and West Virginia, the Cardinals were held to under 200 yards.
Since Justin Burke replaced Froman in the starting lineup, Louisville's offense has essentially become one-dimensional. Though Burke has been solid managing the offense, the passing game hasn't threatened opposing defenses, as Burke, who has thrown five touchdown passes with two interceptions the last three weeks, has averaged just 145 passing yards in his three starts.
"We don't need Burke to go win the football game," Strong said. "We don't want to put the game on the quarterbacks shoulder. We want him to manage the offense like he's been doing and our guys have to make plays. It's not so much what he was doing, the receivers have to make plays, the running backs have to run and the offensive line has to block."
With the passing game struggling, Louisville will need a big game from Powell to record its sixth win this season. Powell, who has rushed for 1,207 yards, has been the key to Louisville's success on offense all season. In Louisville's five wins, Powell is averaging almost 140 yards per game and has scored five touchdowns. In the Cardinals six losses, Powell averaged just 108 yards, and was held under 100 yards in three of those contests.
"Offensively, they are not losing games, especially when their running back is healthy," said Rutgers coach Greg Schiano. "You watch the tape and you know [Powell] is real. He is special."
Louisville hopes to get the Big East's leading rushing attack back on track against Rutgers. The Cardinals were held to a season-low 26 yards against West Virginia, and punter Chris Philpott was the leading rusher after scrambling 21 yards on a fake punt. Jeremy Wright ran 13 times for 20 yards in the contest.
"We can't take away from West Virginia, that was a really good defensive football team," Strong said. "They're No. 4 in the country....and they played like it."
Fortunately, Louisville's offense will face a Rutgers defense that Cincinnati torched for 69 points last week. The Scarlet Knights, 4-6, have lost their last four games, but remain dangerous. Rutgers narrowly lost at USF 28-27, while Syracuse escaped 13-10 two weeks ago.
"They blitz a lot and bring a lot of pressure," Strong said. "They're similar to us, but their pressure is almost every snap they're bringing someone. Cincinnati was able to get some big scores [against their pressure] early."
With the offense struggling, Louisville's defense has surged.
Over the last five games, the Cardinals have been one of the stingiest units nationally, allowing just 245 yards per game. Louisville held West Virginia to just 133 yards through the air, the fifth straight opponent the Cardinals have held under 200 passing yards. Louisville's defense also recorded their first touchdown of the season against the Mountaineers when Daniel Brown recovered a fumble in the end zone.
Strong's defense, which features four freshmen starters, has shown considerable improvement as the season has moved forward. The Cardinals rank No. 11 in the nation in total defense, limiting opponents to just 304 yards per game. Louisville has been solid getting off the field on third down and ranks 21st nationally in sacks per game.
"Their defense is drastically different," Greg Schiano said. "They are playing with great emotion; great energy and they are playing precise. They are a blitz package; they are a blitz scheme, a pressure scheme. They are a precise pressure scheme. They are not half-hazard. You can tell they are well coached."
With his first season almost complete, Strong's team has exceeded expectations. Though it would be disappointing not to reach a bowl game this year, Strong clearly has Louisville on the right track. If the Cardinals can find a way to beat Rutgers Friday for the first time since 2007, their reward probably will be the program's first bowl appearance since the Orange Bowl.
"A bowl game would be very big for us, but [I] just wanted us to compete," Strong said. "It means that this program is taking steps and that's what you wanted to see happen this year. You see us taking steps and see it happening in this program. That's a credit to our seniors. We've put some hope back into this program."
Louisville and Rutgers kickoff at 11:00 at Rutgers Stadium Friday morning for an ESPN2 televised contest.