After a disappointing 14-7 loss at North Carolina last weekend to conclude the non-conference portion of the schedule – dropping the Cardinals record to 2-3 – Louisville is looking for a fresh start Saturday at noon at Cincinnati in the Big East opener.
Though Strong's young squad enters Big East play having dropped three of their last four games, including ugly home losses to Florida International and Marshall, the Louisville coach has his players focused on the Bearcats, who have won the last three Keg of Nails, awarded annually to the winning team.
"Definitely, this is where it counts. Our slate is 0-0 right now," said senior defensive end William Savoy. "Conference play is where it counts and hopefully we can get all of these games in."
Though West Virginia appears the team to beat entering Big East play, Rutgers currently sits atop the league standings with a 2-0 record in conference play. The Mountaineers, 5-1, are 1-0 in conference play, while Pittsburgh is 1-1 in league play. Cincinnati, 4-1 overall, opens Big East play this weekend.
"The Big East is wide open," Savoy said. "That always has kind of been the thing with this conference. There really is not a dominant team. Any week, you can go and get beat if you're not ready, so this is wide open."
"There's so much parity," Strong added. "Each week you never know. Anybody can win this conference and that's the message our players have to understand."
If Louisville expects to compete in the Big East, they'll have to play well on the road. Four of the Cards seven Big East contests will be played away from Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, including Saturday's game at Paul Brown Stadium against the Bearcats.
"It's going to be about how well you play on the road," Strong said. "You need to win some road games if you're going to win this conference. At home, it has to be an automatic (win) for you. If you're going to win this conference you're going to have to steal one or two on the road."
Louisville has scored just 82 points through five games, which ranks last in the Big East. The Cardinals offensive woes have been caused by three major problems: inexperience, penalties and the lack of running game.
True freshman Teddy Bridgewater has started the last two games at quarterback and three freshmen, including true freshmen John Miller and Jamon Brown, have started on the offensive line. Freshmen DeVante Parker, Michaelee Harris and Eli Rogers have seen significant action at wide receiver. In total 13 of 22 players on Louisville two-deep are freshmen or sophomores.
Penalties have also been a major issue for the Cardinals. Strong's inexperienced, patchwork offensive line has been the source of most of the infractions, committing costly holding and false start penalties that have slowed offensive rhythm and put the offense behind the chains at key times.
"Thing that has been really killing us is penalties," Strong said. "The last four games we're (averaging) nine penalties per game. Offensively we're getting stopped because we're not able to continue to drive the ball down the field. We've got to stop shooting ourselves in the foot and that's what we're doing with all these penalties."
The biggest problem for Louisville's offense, though, has been the lack of a consistent running game. After Bilal Powell rushed for more than 1,400 yards last season, no UofL running back has rushed for more than 91 yards (Dominique Brown vs. Kentucky) in a single game this season. The Cardinals are averaging just 116 rushing yards, which ranks just 95th nationally.
"We haven't had a runner yet go over 100 yards," Strong said. "We have to do a better job rushing the ball. What's happening to us offensively is people are able to load the box because we can't run the ball and it's making us one-dimensional."
Solving their offensive problems on the road against Cincinnati's defense won't be an easy task. The Bearcats rank fifth in the nation against the run and 15th in scoring defense.
"Our concentration is on Cincinnati," Strong said. "We have to find a way to go win a game on the road. It's our first conference game and the thing I tell our guys all the time is it's about their focus and emotion and playing hard on the road. That's what we have to do."