Chris Philpott tied a school record with a 52-yard field goal, and Teddy Bridgewater threw a touchdown pass in the third quarter as Louisville beat Rutgers 16-14 Friday night, snapping a three-game skid. The victory provided a few minutes of celebration before Strong broke the news to his Cardinals that Conner broke his neck when the senior cornerback banged his head off Mohamed Sanu's right knee in the second quarter.
Conner was at Jewish Hospital, and Strong said the senior is not paralyzed despite the severity of the injury.
"It's just so tough anytime you lose a player," said Strong, who kept tapping the side of the podium as he spoke. "It's what happens in this game, but you just never think it'll happen to one of your own. For that to happen, it is, it's sad. I think our players, I told them right after the game. I ended up telling them about it, and some of them didn't take it very well. The whole team didn't take it very well."
Louisville (3-4, 1-1 Big East) also capped a week in which Strong signed a new contract.
The Cardinals had three interceptions, ending Rutgers' first two drives and Dexter Heyman picked off Gary Nova with 1:41 left to preserve the victory. Heyman said he expected that route after seeing Rutgers use it repeatedly when studying film.
Jeremy Wright ran for a career-high 108 yards on just 11 carries, the first Cardinals running back to top 100 yards this season. Dominique Brown also ran for a TD. Strong said he told his offense at halftime to go out focused on scoring.
"It wasn't a pretty game, but the guys did it," Strong said.
Rutgers (5-2, 2-1) came in atop the Big East having won four straight and might have got caught looking ahead a week to the Scarlet Knights' game with No. 11 West Virginia, which also lost 49-23 to Syracuse on Friday night.
"We have to take care of what we can control," Rutgers senior fullback Joe Martinek said.
The Scarlet Knights struggled to find the end zone against a Louisville defense ranked 16th in the nation giving up just 16.3 points per game.
They pulled to 16-14 with 14:10 left after driving 80 yards over 14 plays when Nova tossed a 12-yard TD pass to Mohamed Sanu. That was as close as they would get as Mark Harrison dropped a would-be touchdown with the nearest defender 10 yards away, and Rutgers wound up punting on fourth-and-1 with 7:06 left.
"I looked up and I was like, 'Oh my God, how's that guy get so wide open? 'Cause we were in zone coverage, so that should never happen," Strong said.
David Rowe gave Rutgers one last chance when he ran down a ball in the end zone Bridgewater seemed to be throwing away with 2:08 left. But Heyman clinched the victory when he picked off Nova, allowing the Cardinals to run out the clock. Nova, a true freshman, said he hadn't lost a game since eighth grade. He said he didn't see the defender on the final interception.
"I don't like this feeling, and I don't plan on feeling like this again," Nova said.
The Cardinals had struggled in their three-game skid scoring in the second half, managing only one touchdown. They also came in giving up more than 3.5 sacks a game, fourth-worst in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Rutgers averaged four sacks a game on defense but didn't get Bridgewater even once.
"Oh, they blocked people finally," Strong said.
Against Rutgers, they also got their rushing game going behind Wright, Brown and Vic Anderson. They ran for 134 of their 187 yards in the second half, and that helped Philpott cap the opening drive with Louisville's longest field goal since 1989. The field goal tied the record held by three others, and he became the first kicker in school history to kick two field goals of at least 51 yards in the same season.
Bridgewater added to the lead capping a 68-yard drive with an 18-yard TD pass to Michaelee Harris, a former Northwestern High teammate in Miami, with 6:10 left in the third.
Rutgers was lucky to be tied at 7-7 at halftime after two interceptions in Nova's first four passes to end the first two drives of the game and San San Te missed two field goals of 31 and 25 yards after the offense stalled.
Brown scored on a 1-yard run for only Louisville's third rushing TD this season and just the second by a running back — and the first since the season opener. That put the Cardinals up 7-0 midway through the first quarter in a lead that would have been more if not for Philpott pushing a 43-yard field goal wide left.
Marcus Cooper blocked Philpott's punt with 2:38 left in the second quarter, taking advantage of a low snap for the block. That set the Scarlet Knights up at the Louisville 26, but they didn't score until the final play of the half as Savon Huggins ran in easily for the tying TD.