Strong restores hope, excitement

This time last year, Louisville was concluding a disappointing 4-8 season with an uninspiring 34-14 loss to Rutgers at PJCS. Friday, Louisville thumped Greg Schiano's Scarlet Knights 40-13 in Piscataway, N.J., and became bowl eligible for the first time in three years. The difference? Charlie Strong.

This time last year, Louisville was concluding a disappointing 4-8 season with an uninspiring 34-14 loss to Rutgers at PJCS. And let's only briefly mention Louisville's last trip to Rutgers two years ago, a 63-14 beating on ESPN.

Fast forward to the present.

Friday, Louisville thumped Greg Schiano's Scarlet Knights 40-13 in Piscataway, N.J., and became bowl eligible for the first time in three years.

The difference? Charlie Strong.

Strong, Louisville's first-year head coach, has renewed hope, and returned excitement to the Cardinals football program – a program that has missed out on a bowl game each of the past three seasons.

"Last time we were here, we left and it wasn't a good situation," offensive lineman Mark Wetterer said. "From where we were then to where we are now, it's totally different. From day-to-day, to the staff, to the team – everyone has a different attitude. It's a really good feeling."


(AP)
Louisville's three year bowl absence is about to come to an end. Though there's been no official announcement, Louisville almost certainly will play in a bowl game for the first time since beating Wake Forest 25-13 in the Orange Bowl nearly four years ago.


Bilal Powell led Louisville to a huge win against Rutgers Friday. (AP)
That's a major accomplishment for Strong, whose team was picked last in the Big East preseason coaches poll and wasn't expected to win four games, much less finish 6-6. Strong, though, has done more than make Louisville competitive in his first season; He's made Louisville's players believe again.

"(I knew at) the start of the game the whole team was focused," Johnny Patrick said. "We had one goal in mind – to get to a bowl game. The coaching staff knew what was coming and had us prepared."

That wasn't the case the past three years. Now, Louisville players know they'll be ready when the game starts. Louisville's players also understand that Strong will help maximize their talents after watching Bilal Powell, and others thrive in their lone season under his coaching.

"We have a great coaching staff," Patrick exclaimed. "They changed our focus and our attitude. They changed everything and got us to a bowl game. It's tremendous."

One of the more impressive stories in the Big East this season, Strong and his coaching staff helped turn Powell into one of the nation's best running backs after the senior spent three mediocre seasons under Steve Kragthorpe. Strong also turned an inexperienced defense that was supposed to be the team's weak link into a Top 20 unit – a unit that recorded nine sacks against Rutgers.

Strong turned Louisville around with a disciplined approach. He demanded excellence from his players and held them accountable for their actions on and off the field. That approach paid off for a program that lacked disciple and toughness when he took over for Kragthorpe last winter.

"(It was) just an outstanding job today," Strong said. "On our football team, we talk about resiliency. You talk about commitment. You talk about attitude. You talk about sacrifice and being a disciplined team. Today we showed that."

The strength of Strong's first team were his 25 seniors. Powell ran for more than 1,300 yards and scored three touchdowns against Rutgers. Senior cornerback Johnny Patrick intercepted Chas Dodd twice today, including one he returned for Louisville's last touchdown. Rodney Gnat, who didn't make much impact during his first three seasons, recorded nine sacks in his first season under Strong.

"It was so important for us to go out today and play well," Strong said. "We had one game and we wanted to get to a bowl game. You have a group of seniors that have shown so much leadership in this program. It was so important to us to go to a bowl game."

Before the game, Strong made sure his seniors understood the importance of finishing the season with great effort.

"I said, ‘I want you guys to leave a landmark. I want you guys to etch your name and we're going to put it in a stone so that when you do come back, you're more than welcome," Strong said.

"I was just so happy to see that happen today – to see steps taken in this program. We haven't been to a bowl game in so long, just to get to .500 (6-6), we're so proud of the guys."

Strong didn't expect the turnaround to happen this quickly. Before the season, he was extremely cautious when talking expectations, drawing comparisons to his first year as defensive coordinator at South Carolina when the Gamecocks finished 0-11.

"That we got to this point and we've provided so much hope with our players and with the Cardinal Nation, now we have to go get this bowl win," Strong said. "No, I did not see it turning so quickly."

That chance could come next month in the Beef O'Brady's Bowl in St. Petersburg against an opponent from C-USA. A bowl game in Florida would be a huge deal for Louisville. Not only does UofL have a huge alumni base in the Tampa-area, but the Sunshine state is Strong's No. 1 recruiting base. What better way for Louisville to end Strong's first season than by playing in a bowl game in Florida?

"He has an unbelievable will to win," Will Stein said of Strong. "He instills that in us every day - his toughness, his tenacity, his positive attitude. We knew all along the type of team we had. We just had to put it together for four quarters. Today we did, so we're really proud."

So is an excited Louisville fan base.


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