Thursday afternoon, UofL got down to bowl business as Strong led the Cardinals through their first practice at St. Petersburg Catholic HS in preparation for next Tuesday's Beef O Brady's Bowl game against Southern Mississippi.
"The reason we're in a bowl game is that 25 seniors decided to lead this football team," Strong said. "We've made tremendous strides because of the leadership of our seniors."
In his first season, Strong directed Louisville to their first bowl game in four years. The Cardinals lost two of their first three games to Kentucky and Oregon State, then won three of the next four games, including a 26-0 win over Big East BCS representative Connecticut.
After falling behind by three touchdowns at Oregon State, Strong summoned his troops, delivered a stern message and his players responded. Though Louisville lost that game 35-28, Strong said it was the turning point for his program.
"Each game we got better and better and better," Strong said. "I think our football team turned around in the Oregon State game. We were down 34-14, and I told the defense we're not going to get embarrassed. So then we stopped them on defense, and our offense started scoring. I told them after that game they showed me they could compete and from that point we're going to take this program forward."
With starting quarterback Adam Froman sidelined with injury, Louisville won only two of their last five Big East games, but Justin Burke directed the Cardinals to key road wins over Syracuse and Rutgers to become bowl eligible. The Cardinals won three league games this season after winning only two the previous two years.
"For us to play in a bowl game is big for this program because we needed that for our confidence," Strong said. "Any time you change a staff you want something good happen. From now on, we'll take this program and get better and better."
Though Froman will be available for action if needed, Strong said Burke will start against Southern Mississippi next season. In four starts, Burke threw for 572 yards and seven touchdowns.
"Burke is going to be the starter, but Froman is practicing," Strong said. "We're comfortable with whoever plays. [Froman] will be available because he is practicing."
Strong, who will be coaching his second bowl game as a head coach (his first was as interim head coach at Florida during the transition from Ron Zook to Urban Meyer), said he won't change Louisville's practice habits leading up to the bowl game.
"Our practices haven't changed," Strong said. "It's still the same tempo. The guys understand how to practice. They're used to it and they understand how hard they have to work. It feels good to be practicing in December."
Strong will match wits with Southern Miss' Larry Fedora, who he worked with at Florida. Fedora's offense has been explosive this season, averaging nearly 38 points, 15th nationally in scoring. The Golden Eagles average 458 yards total offense and Fedora's balanced attack figures to challenge Strong's nationally-ranked defense.
"They have a really high-powered offense," Strong said. "It's going to be a good challenge for our defense. They are a spread offense and their quarterback is really good. He does a good job with personnel matchups. We're going to have to slow them down. We've got to corral the football and tackle these guys. They're similar to Cincinnati's offense. We've got to keep them in front of us."
Louisville will practice Friday, Saturday and Sunday, then take Monday off before Tuesday's contest.
"It's good to get there [to a bowl], now let's go win it," Strong said. "I want them to really enjoy [the experience], but when it's time to lock in [and prepare], it's time to lock in."