Charlie Strong's Cardinals entered Saturday's game in the thick of the Big East title race after winning straight league games, including last week's surprising upset win over then 24th ranked West Virginia in Morgantown.
But just as they did following their big road win over rival Kentucky earlier this season, Strong's team returned home and laid an egg against a Pittsburgh team that had dropped five of its last seven games before bouncing the Cardinals 21-14 Saturday at PJCS.
"They had everything going for them so you think they would have come out here and played," Strong said. "Today is a perfect example of no focus, poor execution and preparation."
Strong knew his players weren't focused during pre-game warm-ups and pulled them back into the locker room in an effort to get their attention. Didn't work.
From the opening possession of the game, when Pittsburgh marched 80 yards against Louisville's defense for a touchdown, it was apparent this wasn't the same Cardinal team that beat Rutgers, Syracuse and West Virginia to claim sole possession of second place in the Big East standings.
In a scoreless first half for Louisville, the Cardinals hurt themselves with costly turnovers and penalties, something they didn't really do during their three game winning streak. Whether it was Teddy Bridgewater's interception in Pittsburgh territory, a block in the back that negated a Senorise Perry kick return to midfield or two chop blocks that stalled drives, Louisville's focus and execution wasn't the same as it had been the past few weeks.
"We're nowhere near where we should be," said Strong. "For some reason sometimes we think we have all the answers. We win three games then we come out here today and don't play well at home. That stems from the way we practiced all week. This team can not handle winning and today was a good example of that."
Apparently, Strong's players again paid too much attention to their glowing press clippings after their emotional win over the Mountaineers instead of preparing properly for Pittsburgh, who desperately needed a win to keep their post-season hopes alive.
"You could just tell by the way we practiced," Strong said. "On Tuesday and Wednesday I started practice over again. That stems from a football team that is not very mature and can't handle winning."
On a day when Louisville honored a smallish group of seniors in their final home game, Strong lamented a lack of leadership after his team's disappointing loss.
"It all goes back to your leadership," Strong said. "If you don't have enough guys who are leaders throughout your program then the message has to continue to come from the coaches."
Though Louisville's defense gave up nearly 400 yards against Pittsburgh, Strong's group still gave the Cardinals a chance to win. But UofL's offense, which played so well the past two weeks, didn't show up ready to play.
The Cardinals turned the ball over twice, struggled to establish a consistent running game, and hurt themselves, particularly in the first half, with penalties. How bad was Louisville's offense? Josh Bleser had almost as many yards (277) punting as the Cardinals did offensively (280).
"The plays were there. We just didn't make the plays. We didn't execute," said Strong. "We were lackadaisical. Guys weren't running routes rights. We weren't running the ball or blocking. Penalties – we get two chop blocks and we've never had chop blocks the whole season. So the penalties end up hurting us."
Though Louisville rushed for over 100 yards for the fourth consecutive game, the Cardinals simply weren't able to sustain drives against Pitt. Louisville didn't score its first touchdown until late in the third quarter, and that was the result of a poor Pittsburgh punt that gave the Cardinals possession on the Panthers 11.
"We weren't able to run the ball the way we wanted to with the blocking," Strong said. "The receivers didn't do a good job getting open. Their defensive backs did a good job covering. When that happens the quarterback has nowhere to throw the ball and he ended up running a lot because of the coverage they played. We should have been able to make plays with our wide receivers."
Now, Louisville has two games remaining on the road against UConn and South Florida. At 5-5, the Cardinals must win one more game to become bowl eligible. Louisville has never beaten the Bulls on the road.
"We just didn't play smart today," Strong said. "We didn't execute and we weren't locked in. Our focus wasn't there. We've got to be able to handle winning, which we're not able to do right now."