One month ago, after three straight losses to Marshall, North Carolina and Cincinnati dropped their record to 2-4, having a winning season, much less playing in a bowl game, seemed a remote possibility for Charlie Strong's program.
But Strong's bold decision to replace offensive coordinator Mike Sanford after an unexpected loss to the Thundering Herd seems to have paid major dividends for the offense. A unit that struggled to score points and run the ball, and was committing too many costly mistakes early in the season is starting to play better under the guidance of Shawn Watson, who replaced Sanford.
Though Louisville still averages less than 20 points per game on the season, Watson's offense has strung together two promising performances in wins over Syracuse and West Virginia. After scoring a season-high 27 points in a win over the Orange two weeks ago, Louisville scored 31 points on offense, scoring four touchdowns and a field goal in five trips inside the redzone, to knock off then-No. 24 West Virginia, 38-31, in Morgantown.
Louisville's inability to run the football earlier this season has given way to three straight games of more than 100 yards rushing, including a season-high 187 against Syracuse. And the penalties and turnovers that hurt the Cardinals while losing four of five games to start the season haven't been problems during a three-game winning streak. In fact, Louisville had no offensive penalties against West Virginia and committed just one turnover despite a hostile road environment.
"If you look at us on offense, we had an outstanding offensive game," Strong said of his team's performance at West Virginia. "Teddy Bridgewater played an unbelievable game. Our running backs ran hard. Our offensive line blocked well. Our wide receivers caught the ball.
"So, offensively if you look at us, it was a really good day on offense. The thing we have to improve on offense is execution and also on third down. We were 5-for-13, which wasn't very good. So, on third down, we need to make sure that we get the ball where we get a first down so we can continue to move the chains."
Besides starting a true freshman at quarterback, Strong is counting on several other youngsters to move the chains and score points. Two true freshmen, Jamon Brown (tackle) and John Miller (guard) started on the offensive line against West Virginia. Three freshmen wide receivers – DeVante Parker, Eli Rogers and Michaelee Harris – have made major contributions all season. Rogers caught a touchdown against West Virginia; Parker converted a key third down in the second half.
"When you look at where we are right now, I didn't know what type of team we were going to have because we are so young," Strong said. "I looked out there Saturday on the field and we lined up with eight freshmen on offense Saturday. There were four wide receivers and then you look at the offensive line with Jake Smith, (John) Miller, Jamon Brown and then Teddy at quarterback. At one point, you had eight freshmen there on offense."
That's why Strong never thought his team would head into the season's final three games still in the Big East title hunt, which is exactly the position the Cardinals find themselves with Pittsburgh coming to town. Though Louisville needs help to win the league title, Strong's Cards, 3-1 in the Big East, are in sole possession of second place behind Cincinnati, 3-0 in the conference.
"I just never figured we would be in the position we are in because of our youth," said Strong. "I didn't know if the leadership was going to take over or not. I say to them all of the time, ‘You are no longer freshmen. We've played nine games. I expect us to improve each week and for us to get better.' A month ago, after you lose the Marshall game, we were sitting there and didn't know which direction we were going to go. We didn't know where we were going to fall to. Then, you go and win a game and then the confidence gradually starts to come back."
Now, Strong's major task is focusing his young players on the task at hand, which is a struggling, but dangerous, Pittsburgh team that has lost 5 of its past 7 games. While the media and fans might get caught up in the Big East title race buzz and bowl hunt, Strong says he's not addressing the subject with his players.
"I haven't even said anything about that," said Strong. "I think our players are reading into it. But, I just want to make sure our focus stays on Pitt. Yesterday, what I said to them was, ‘We were in this position last year. We go lose to South Florida. Let's just make sure we handle our business at home. It's the last game for our seniors here at home, so let's make sure we send them out the right way."