There were some common themes in those losses. In two of the four defeats, the Cardinals couldn't hang onto second half leads. Against Marshall and Cincinnati, both games Louisville led in the second half, the Cardinals failed to score after the break.
Saturday, Strong's program took a major step forward with a convincing 27-10 win over Syracuse, who dominated West Virginia, the Big 12's newest member, last week. For the second straight week, Louisville held onto a second half lead to finish off a league opponent. The Cards also scored 13 second half points against the Orange, clear progress for an offense that hasn't finished strong.
"You look at us offensively, we took some small steps," Strong said. "Today, we made a really good step for our program."
Louisville's victory over the Orange comes a week after the Cardinals win against Rutgers. For the first time since Louisville's 2006 Orange Bowl season, the Cardinals have won consecutive Big East games. That's a significant step for a team that relies heavily on a slew of true freshmen, including starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.
"This is the first time we've won consecutive Big East games in five years and we needed to get that done for the program," Strong said.
Heyman, the team's leading tackler, made big plays in the backfield against a Syracuse offense that scored 49 points against West Virginia last week, including a key tackle for loss of the Orange's Antwon Bailey, who had burned UofL's defense twice on the same ‘Express' play, on a critical third down play in the second half.
Anderson delivered the knock-out punch against the Orange with a 61-yard touchdown scamper in the fourth quarter that gave Louisville an insurmountable 24-3 lead. Anderson also showed his leadership before the game, delivering a rousing, win-one-for Anthony Conner-speech in the locker room.
Louisville has been good on defense all season. Saturday might have been their best overall performance. The Cardinals used relentless pressure while holding Syracuse to 246 yards one week after the Orange hung 446 total yards and 49 points on WVU. Syracuse was just 3 of 14 on third down, and mustered just 84 yards rushing.
"We had to get pressure and stop the run and we did," Strong said.
With four games left, Louisville's bowl hopes are still alive. The Cardinals, 4-4 overall and 2-1 in the Big East, face a tough test at West Virginia next week. If Louisville plans to return to a bowl this season, they'll have to become eligible on the road. Three of the Cards final four games are on the road. Only Pittsburgh will visit PJCS during the final month of the regular season.
Now that Louisville's offense is providing Strong's defense some help, the Cardinals chances against West Virginia, Pittsburgh, UConn and South Florida seem improved.
Saturday, Shawn Watson came out aggressive against the Orange defense. That aggression, along with a stingy defense, set the tone early as Louisville jumped out to a 14-0 lead.
Bridgewater, now 2-3 as a starter, threw two touchdown passes, including a 42-yard scoring to strike to freshman DeVante Parker on Louisville's first series. The 6'3 Bridgewater completed 17 of 24 passes for 198 yards, spreading the wealth to nine different receivers. More importantly, Bridgewater didn't commit a turnover against the Orange's aggressive defense.
It's clear Bridgewater is maturing quickly for the Cardinals. His poise is evident and belies his relative inexperience. With the confidence that should result from Louisville's two game winning streak, the Cardinals will look to take another major step forward next week in Morgantown, West Virginia.
"We have to go and get ready for West Virginia," said Strong. "I told them to celebrate this win, but it's all about West Virginia tomorrow."