Consider the following:
At North Carolina two weeks ago, Louisville and the Tar Heels were tied 0-0 at the break, but UNC managed two second half scores for a 14-7 win.
Last Saturday at Cincinnati, Louisville played perhaps their best half of the season, talking a 16-7 lead into the break only two watch the Bearcats scored 18 unanswered points in the second half for a 25-16 win.
That's three straight losses in which Louisville scored just seven combined second half points against Marshall, North Carolina and Cincinnati. Unless Strong's defense starts pitching shutouts, it's going to be hard to win in the Big East if the offense can't keep pace with opponents, especially in the second half.
"Defensively, if you look at that Cincinnati game, we were up 16-7 and we have to hold that lead," Strong said during Monday's Big East conference call. "In the second half they ended up scoring 18 points. We're playing well enough, but when you get a lead you have to be able to hold the lead. That's what we're not doing a good job of….the North Carolina (game) was 0-0 and we ended up giving up two big plays in that game. It's the big plays that have hurt us. We're playing well, but you have to execute and you can't miss tackles and give up big plays and you have to be able to get off the field on third down."
What must Louisville to do to hold leads and finish games? Play smart. That means eliminating turnovers and penalties, not allowing big plays defensively and winning the special teams battle.
"The thing about the Cincinnati game is that we played hard, but we didn't play smart," said Strong. "The last few weeks we've become our own worst enemy. We just need to stay focused and attentive to small details. Bad things are going to happen in a game but you have to be able to bounce back. That's what we're not able to do right now. It's so important to finish."
Now, Louisville returns to PJCS in a must-win situation against a Rutgers team that has started the season a surprising 5-1, including 2-0 in Big East play. The Scarlet Knights beat Navy 21-20 last week.
"Rutgers is a very good football," Strong said. "They're 2-0 in the conference. It's going to be a really tough matchup for us. Coming into the game they have a lot of confidence, which we're lacking right now. We look forward to Rutgers coming into our place."
Strong's top concern against Greg Schiano's team is a pressure defense that has helped the Scarlet Knight to a plus-13 turnover margin.
"That's a major concern," said Strong. "They're a pressure team and they bring pressure from anywhere on the field and create a lot of turnovers. That's going to be an issue for us. Can we pick up the pressure? They do a good job disguising pressure – showing it one way and bringing it from another. It's going to be a cat and mouse game to see if we can pick it up."
Louisville's offensive line will face a major challenge keeping freshman quarterback Teddy Bridgewater on his feet against Rutgers' pressure. Bridgewater was sacked four times against Cincinnati.
"When you put a freshman out there each game is going to be a learning process. The more he plays he'll get better," Strong said. "What Teddy needs to do is stay poised."
Sanford DepartsCharlie Strong announced Monday after practice that Mike Sanford is no longer part of the Louisville program.
"When I make a decision I make it in the best interest of our program," Strong said Monday. "It was more than just philosophy. Like I said, it was in the best interest of this program."
Sanford, Louisville's former offensive coordinator, was replaced two weeks ago by quarterback coach Shawn Watson. Watson, the former Nebraska offensive coordinator, has called the plays in Sanford's absence the last two weeks at North Carolina and Cincinnati. Strong says he'll evaluate the situation at the end of the season.
"We're going to continue with Coach Watson calling the plays and at the end of the season we will evaluate and hire someone," Strong said.