The Golden Eagles stuck for two first quarter touchdowns - the first score a 32 yard pass from Austin Davis to Quentin Pierce; the second a 62 yard Desmond Johnson run.
At that juncture Southern Mississippi appeared in complete control of the bowl game. But Louisville settled down, regrouped and tied the score at 21 at halftime.
"We were down 14, and we were just trying to find out how to get back in the game," Strong said. "One of our goals is to play great defense. We were able to get some stops on defense when it really counted and get off the field."
Louisville actually blew an opportunity to cut into Southern Miss' 14 point lead when Doug Beaumont lost a fumble inside the 10 yard line after the Golden Eagles fumbled a punt snap deep in UofL territory.
"We have enough trust in each to just keep playing," Strong said. "The game is 60 minutes, just keep playing and the outcome will be in your favor if you do the right thing."
But Justin Burke found Cameron Graham for an 11 yard score early in the second quarter to cut USM's lead to 14-7.
Davis extended the lead for Southern Miss to 21-7 minutes later when he caught a 17 yard scoring strike from Pierce on a successful trick play for the Golden Eagles.
Louisville didn't panic, responding with two key touchdowns late in the first half to knot the score at intermission.
Burke connected with Josh Chichester for a touchdown on 3rd and nine to cut USM's lead to 14-7 with 4:24 left in the first half. Three minutes later Bilal Powell scored from six yards after the Cardinals recovered a fumble deep inside USM territory.
"Burke played well," Strong said. "Burke was able to manage the game and make throws."
Neither team moved the scoreboard in the third quarter, but the two rivals scored a pair of touchdowns in the first 20 seconds of the fourth period.
Davis threw his second touchdown pass of the game at the 14:55 mark to Zeke Walters. But reserve running back Jeremy Wright returned the ensuing kickoff 95 yards to tie the game at 28 with 14:40 left in the contest.
"The turning point in the game was Wright's kickoff return," Strong said. "He took it the distance and tied the game back up. And then we were just able to battle and keep our composure."
That set up Chris Philpott's game-winning 36 yard field goal with under seven minutes.
The win, UofL's first bowl victory since the Orange Bowl, also secured a winning record for the Cardinals for the first time since Bobby Petrino's final season with the Cardinals. Louisville finished 7-6 in Charlie Strong's first season and have a confidence-building win to build on for next season.
Ironically, Southern Miss outgained Louisville by 100 yards (386-286), had 59 more rushing yards, and nine more first downs. The Golden Eagles also fumbled a punt snap, had a field goal attempt blocked and surrendered a kick return for touchdown.
And that was the difference for Louisville - special teams. Despite being out-gained for the game, the Cardinals made enough big plays to come away with a big win to wrap up a program-turning season for Charlie Strong.
"You look at a football team that has learned all year to compete, a team tonight that fought through adversity, never quit," Strong said. "At the end of the day when it was time to make plays we made plays."
Louisville hoped to use the Beef O' Brady's Bowl as a springboard to better things in the future. Now, Strong's players finally have something positive to build on.
"It was a great bowl win and you always want to end the season on a winning note," Strong said. "That is really good for our program."
Strong now is 1-0 in bowl games at Louisville. Howard Schnellenberger was 2-0 in bowl games. John L. Smith was 1-4; Bobby Petrino 2-2.