If Strong plans to collect this season, his Cardinals must beat Rutgers Friday night at PJCS.
Louisville enters tonight's 8:00 ESPN2 matchup on a three-game losing streak, having lost to Marshall, North Carolina and Cincinnati since beating rival Kentucky last month on the road. At 2-4 overall, and 0-1 in the Big East, the Cardinals find themselves in must-win territory at midseason.
"We have to come home and defend our stadium," Strong said. "The last two times we've been here we've lost. This is a conference game, the crowd is here for us now we have to play."
One of the better defensive teams nationally, Louisville has been downright anemic on offense this season. The Cardinals rank 111th nationally in scoring offense (16.6), 102nd in rushing offense (108.8) and 100th in total offense (331).
Last week against Cincinnati, Louisville failed to score an offensive touchdown in a 25-16 loss to the Bearcats. Louisville actually led the high-scoring Cincinnati 16-7 at halftime thanks to three Chris Philpott field goals and a Mike Evans interception return for touchdown, but the Bearcats scored 18 unanswered points in the second half.
"(Chris) Philpott did a better job hitting the field goals," Strong said. "But we have to turn those field goals into touchdowns. We need touchdowns so our guys feel better about going out on defense. But, it doesn't matter if it is 3-0, 6-0 or 9-0; we have to go defend and that's what defense is all about. We still have to continue to grow and develop. This is a young football team. I'm not going to make excuses for it. We've played six games now. It's time that they've grown up and we have to go win these games."
Louisville's young offense will receive another tough test against a stout Rutgers defense that ranks 12th nationally in scoring defense, 19th in total defense and 28th against the run.
"They are a pressure team. If you watch their defense, they are going to bring pressure from the field, they are going to bring it from the boundary and bring it up the middle," said Strong. "They are hitting the quarterback and causing balls to pop out. They are hitting receivers and causing balls to pop up. They are a pressure defense and are playing really well."
The game figures to be a defensive struggle. Rutgers has also struggled offensively, ranking 111th nationally in rushing offense and 97th in total offense. But unlike Louisville's offense, the Scarlet Knights have found ways to score, averaging 30 points per game.
With two struggling offenses and two outstanding defenses, turnovers could be the deciding factor Friday night.
Rutgers defense is No. 1 nationally in turnover margin (plus 13), a key reason the Scarlet Knights sit atop the Big East standings with a 2-0 mark, 5-1 overall. The Scarlet Knights put relentless pressure on opposing quarterback, ranking second nationally in sacks and have created 24 turnovers in six games, including 14 interceptions.
That could spell trouble for the Cardinals, who haven't allowed more than 25 points in a game all season, but have only forced six turnovers. On the other side of the ball, Louisville's offensive line hasn't protected Teddy Bridgewater well, allowing four or more sacks in five of six games this season, including four last week against Cincinnati. Turnovers have also been a problem from Louisville. Bridgewater, who will make his fourth career start, has thrown six interceptions and the Cardinals have lost four fumbles in six games.
"We're hoping we don't turn it over offensively and get a play or two and let the defense go out and win the game," Strong said.
After blowing chances to win in each of the past three games, Louisville is still learning how win. Strong hopes his team figures out how to finish Friday night in front of the home crowd. A win over Rutgers could provide the Cardinals a major confidence boost.
"Our guys have to realize that they are good football players," said Strong. "It's all about a belief and having the confidence. It's about believing in themselves. I don't know if they really, really deep down think that they are good enough.
"I tell them all of the time, ‘Guys, you are good enough. You are a really good football team. But, you have to believe it.' There has to be that accountability and responsibility. It's all about somebody needs to step up and be a playmaker. Somebody needs to step up and be a total leader of this football team."