Strong's Cardinals make statement vs. WVU

Louisville recorded a statement win Saturday in Morgantown over No. 24 West Virginia. Charlie Strong's Cards responded well to adversity on the road, beating West Virginia for the first since 2006 to stay in the Big East championship hunt.

Charlie Strong won a bowl game to cap his first season at Louisville.

He beat rival Kentucky on the road earlier this season to end a four-game losing streak against the Cardinals hated rival.

Saturday, Strong won his biggest game as Louisville's coach, beating No. 24 West Virginia 38-35 in Morgantown to snap a four-game losing streak against the Cardinals top Big East rival.

"We didn't come here to lose or to play it tight. We came in here to win," said Strong.

The win was a major statement for Louisville, especially after the Big 12 chose the Mountaineers over the Cardinals last week.

"Our football team played very well today," Strong said. "We went on the road and won a tough game here at West Virginia and got our third win in the conference. I am so happy for our team, and I am so happy with how well we responded."

This game meant more than future league bragging rights. Both teams entered the game tied for second place in the league behind Cincinnati, who plays Pittsburgh Saturday night. With the win, Louisville left Morgantown a legitimate Big East title contender, while West Virginia, despite a high-powered offensive attack, fell to 2-2 in conference play.

The game matched the league's best offense (West Virginia) against the best defense (Louisville). Defense won the day. Though West Virginia gained 533 yards total offense, Louisville forced two turnovers, had a crucial stop on fourth and one in the second half and returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown – and 10 point lead – late in the game.

After losing three straight, Louisville has now won three consecutive Big East games for the first time since winning the league title in 2006. The Cardinals offense struggled during a three-game losing streak to Marshall, North Carolina and Cincinnati, but has made steady improvement the past month under the guidance of offensive coordinator Shawn Watson, who replaced Mike Sanford after the loss to the Thundering Herd.

A big reason for Louisville's improvement on offense is the play of the offensive line. For the third straight game, the Cardinals rushed for over 100 yards. Though Teddy Bridgewater was sacked four times, UofL's much-maligned line protected well enough that the true freshman had time to complete 21-27 pass attempts for a career-high 246 yards and a touchdown.

"Ted just continues to get better and better," said Strong. "As he has gained, he has developed. If you look at it, he is getting better and the whole offense is getting better because we are able to run the football. When you are able to run the football (105 net yards on 33 attempts), it opens up the passing game."

With three games remaining, the Cardinals are in the hunt for their second Big East championship. They'll need some help as Cincinnati entered the day undefeated in Big East play, but it's clear Louisville is a team to be reckoned with.

That's a remarkable statement about the job Charlie Strong and his staff has done with a young team that has played nine true freshmen this season.

Strong's ability to develop young talent is undeniable. Despite a hostile environment in Morgantown, Strong's young guys never wilted under the pressure against one of the top programs in the Big East.

Bridgewater made big plays throughout, including a game-tying drive right before halftime that seized momentum from the home team. True freshman Andrew Johnson returned a blocked field goal 82 yards that positioned UofL for victory late in the game. Sophomores Jeremy Wright, Dominique Brown and Senorise Perry all rushed for touchdowns and freshman receiver Eli Rogers caught the touchdown pass at the end of the first half that tied the score at 21.

Defensively, Louisville's young guys made an impact, too.

Sophomore safety Hakeem Smith made a team-high ten tackles and forced a fumble. Sophomore linebacker Preston Brown recorded six tackles, while freshmen Calvin Pryor and Andrew Johnson combined for 12 tackles.

But Strong has to be most encouraged with how his team responded to adversity against a nationally-ranked opponent on the road.

West Virginia struck early on their first possession to take a 7-0 lead. A lot of teams would have wilted in that situation, but Louisville marched right down the field to tie the score.

After West Virginia scored twice in a row to take a 21-14 second quarter advantage, Bridgewater directed a game-tying drive just before the break.

And for the third straight game, Louisville finished strong in the second half. The Cardinals struck twice in the second half to take a 31-21 advantage early in the fourth quarter. After West Virginia drove 95 yards in warp speed to cut the lead to 31-28 with 9:01 remaining, Louisville responded with a 13 play, 66 yard drive capped by Brown's three-yard touchdown run.

Though West Virginia scored in the final minute to cut the margin, Brown recovered an onside kick and Louisville ran out the clock on the Mountaineers.

Strong's Cardinals welcome Pittsburgh next week with Big East title hope firmly intact.

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