Charlie Strong's Louisville Cardinals aim to snap a four-game losing streak against Kentucky Saturday in Lexington.
After winning 7 of 8 games in the series from 1999-2006, Louisville fell on hard times during Steve Kragthorpe's three-year tenure. Kentucky turned the tide on the Cardinals after Kragthorpe replaced Bobby Petrino, and Strong, UofL's second-year coach, remains in catch-up mode against the Wildcats.
Saturday night, Strong will take his young Cardinals into hostile Commonwealth Stadium fresh off a 24-17 loss to FIU last week. With their confidence shaken, Strong expressed doubt this week that his inexperienced team could go on the road and knock off an SEC opponent.
"We are going to go face a very good football team," Strong said. "I don't know if we can beat Kentucky right now. They return ten starters on defense. Their whole offensive line is back and that is the nucleus of their football team right now.
"They've beaten us four straight years. They've been to five straight bowl games. We've been to one bowl game in four years. They have out-recruited us. We still have a ways to go. We have to go catch that program because within this state right now, Kentucky leads the series. We have a long ways to go. We have to continue to rebuild this program and get this program headed back in the right direction."
A straight-shooter, Strong insists that's ‘real' talk. Despite finishing last season with Louisville's first bowl victory since the 2007 Orange Bowl, the Cardinals remain in rebuilding mode - 25 freshmen or sophomores are listed in the two-deep for tonight's game - after losing 25 seniors from last year's Beef O'Brady's Bowl championship team.
"We're not a very good football team right now," Strong said. "The coaches aren't doing a good job coaching and the players and playing (well). Our players have to stay focused and lock in for a 60 minute game. We're still a young football team, but it's no excuse. We're 1-1 so we need to win. Playing hard isn't good enough. We need to go win the game."
Though Louisville is coming off a disappointing performance against Florida International, Stein believes a win over Kentucky would get the Cardinals back on track.
"I know what it means to win in this rivalry," Stein said. "It's a big momentum game for us. If we win it can catapult us for the rest season."
For Louisville's seniors, including defensive end Greg Scruggs, tonight represents a final chance to beat the Wildcats. Scruggs says the key is not to get caught up in the game's emotion and focus on the task at hand.
"It means a lot, the instate rivalry," Scruggs said. "The one thing you don't want to do is give too much emotion to it because then your emotions start to take over and you won't pay attention to the details and the things you need to work on as far as the scheme and the technique. It is a big game with the rivalry and the history that it has, but you want to do your best not to make it more than what it is."
Louisville's defense has been pretty solid this season, despite allowing two big pass plays to FIU star wide receiver T.Y. Hilton last week. The Cardinals rank in the Top 40 nationally in scoring defense, rushing defense and total defense and Scruggs and co., will have to lead the way against Kentucky.
"Defensively, we can't give up the big play," Strong said. "It's all about awareness. We gave up two big plays to T.Y. Hilton due to we didn't know where he was. We need to improve and get better as a football team. It's a big rival game."
Offensively, Strong wants to see more balance. Though Stein threw for 349 yards against FIU, Louisville's running game needs to be more productive against Kentucky. The Cardinals rushed for only 83 yards on 41 carries against FIU -- scoring just 17 points despite 446 yards of total offense.
"I think Stein is playing pretty well," Strong said. "He's made some plays and found the open receivers. We have to do a better job protecting him and allow him to sit back there. If he has time he's going to find open guys."
"Offensively, when we get the ball in the red-zone we have to score. You get the ball third and one, fourth and one, you've got to convert."
Though Kentucky enters the game 2-0, the Wildcats looked anything but impressive in wins over Western Kentucky and Central Michigan. Joker Phillips' troops trailed in both contests before putting away inferior opponents.
"They've been down in two games and been able to comeback," Strong said. "We've been down (FIU) and weren't able to comeback. They're playing with a lot of confidence.
"Defensively, they're coming from everywhere. They blitz and play a lot of man coverage. Offensively, Newton is doing a good job and the thing he can do is throw the deep ball and they have guys who can go get it. The nucleus is their offense line and they do a good job protecting."
Though Newton has struggled throwing the ball – Newton has completed less than 50 percent of his passes and thrown four interceptions this season – Kentucky's junior quarterback figures to be a focal point for Louisville's defense because of his ability to make plays.
"They put more runs in for him against Central Michigan and he's big and physical and he can run through guys," Strong said. "The thing he can do with his speed is keep the chains moving. He ran one 51 yards against Western Kentucky, and then in the Central Michigan game there was a key run on third and four where he got 17 yards on the run. We're going to have to stop him from running the ball. That's very critical."