Saturday, the Cardinals travel to Cincinnati where they hope to snap a two game losing streak against the Bearcats and re-claim the Keg of Nails.
More importantly, though, Charlie Strong wants to see his Cards get off to a good start in Big East play against Cincinnati, a high-scoring team – 45 points per game – with a stingy defense that has allowed just 16 points while starting the season 4-1.
Louisville has been solid on the road during Strong's tenure, but the Cards have dropped three of their past four games, including a 14-7 disappointment last Saturday at North Carolina.
"Overall, the team thinks that when we might get beat, we rise to the occasion," defensive end William Savoy said. "Sometimes we play down to our opponents, which is not good. We've got to mature as a team. Any game where we're really scared that we might get beat, we kind of raise the bar. Over time, we will gain our maturity."
The Cardinals won't be overlooking the Bearcats, who enter the game as better than a two touchdown favorite. Offensively, Cincinnati presents problems for Louisville's defense because of their balance. Defensively, Butch Jones' squad has been stingy against the run and held four of their five opponents to 14 points or less, including a shutout against Miami (OH) two weeks ago.
"Cincinnati is an outstanding football team," Strong said. "They are very (multi-faceted) on offense. Their quarterback (Zach) Collaros can manage their offense. He has done a better job this year of scrambling, getting outside and throwing the football. They've got some outstanding receivers in (Anthony) McClung and (D.J.) Woods. The running back (Isaiah) Pead, if you remember last year, went for over 140 yards rushing against us. We have to tackle better in this game.
"If you look at Cincinnati on defense, they return 11 starters. They are a really good defense. They do a good job of attacking. They blitz like us. They blitz a lot. They are third in the country in turnovers. They are getting a lot of turnovers; a ton of interceptions. It is going to be a task for our offense."
Though Cincinnati's balance presents problems, the key for Louisville will be to slow Pead and the Bearcats ground attack.
"We have to be smart in gap control because they're going to run the football," said Strong. "We're going to have to be able to stop the run. Then we're going to have to cover enough so when they catch the ball we get them on the ground and not allow them yards after the catch."
Shawn Watson, who replaced Mike Sanford as offensive coordinator last week, has his work cut out trying to jump-start a struggling Louisville offense against a solid Cincinnati defense. The Cardinals rank 112th nationally in scoring, 95th in rushing yards, and 94th in total offense.
Inexperience abounds for Strong's offense, which has been led the past two games by true freshman quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. Penalties have also been a problem – the Cards were flagged 20 times for 170 yards in losses to Marshall and UNC. The major problem for UofL's offense, though, has been a subpar offensive line that has resulted in a stagnant running game, while allowing too many sacks.
"Mike(Sanford) did a tremendous job, but just at the time for our program I thought that we needed to have a change to move forward," said Strong.
In the past two games, Louisville has scored only a total of 20 points. Cincinnati allowed 45 points against Tennessee, but was extremely stingy in four wins.
"If you look at Cincinnati on defense, they return 11 starters," said Strong. "They are a really good defense. They do a good job of attacking. They blitz like us, they blitz a lot. They are third in the country in turnovers. They are getting a lot of turnovers; a ton of interceptions. It is going to be a task for our offense."
Though Louisville ranks 10th nationally against the run, 15th in total defense and 13th in scoring, Strong expects his defense to step up its play even more, particularly on third down, with the offensive still searching for an identity.
"Defensively, we can't keep giving up the big play. That's what's been hurting us," Strong said. "We'd like to be better on third down. That's where teams have been able to sustain drives on us. We're a pressure package team. Our defense needs to shorten the field for our offense and we haven't done a good job of that yet. We need to turn the field and get some turnovers."
If Louisville plans to walk out of Paul Brown Stadium with an important Big East win – and the Keg of Nails – Saturday, they'll have to play tougher, smarter and more disciplined than they have the past two weeks.
"It all counts now," Strong said. "If we stop getting self-inflicted penalties, stop giving up big plays on defense and start running the ball then we'll have a chance to go win this football game."