A win over the Huskies would also keep the Cardinals, 5-5 overall and 3-2 in Big East play, in the conference title race. Louisville won three straight Big East games before falling to Pittsburgh last week to fall into a four-way tie for second place in the league standings behind Cincinnati.The key for Louisville Saturday might be stopping UConn's sensational freshman running back Lyle McCombs, who is nearing 1,000 yards this season and has rushed for 100 yards or more in UConn's last three games. A shifty back, McCombs ran for 152 yards in a win over Syracuse two weeks ago.
"They want to run the football," Charlie Strong said. "They are a very physical and tough team."
McCombs is the biggest weapon for a UConn offense that has scored more than 21 points only three times this season and ranks 107th in the nation in total offense.
"[Lyle McCombs] has grown a great deal," UConn's Paul Pasqualoni said. "The thing about Lyle is, he is bright-eyed, very smart, and very tough and that all helps. His skill-set is such that he can make people miss. He makes a tackler miss, that's for sure. He knows what to do and he likes to compete. He just likes to win and he's a tough guy. He has meant a lot to us. We're doing a good job of running the ball right now in the Big East and he's a big part of that."
Louisville has been strong against the run all season, but allowed Pittsburgh to rush for 200 yards last week. Strong's defensive front has been dealing with several injuries recently, contributing to Louisville's poor performance against the run last week.
Sophomore defensive end Marcus Smith is struggling with a high ankle sprain and is expected to be limited against UConn. Senior defensive end Greg Scruggs has been hampered by turf toe this season and tackle Randy Salmon is out with mono.
Besides stopping McCombs, Strong hopes his young team will be focused and ready to play. After his team's loss to Pittsburgh, Strong chastised his team's lack of focus and poor preparation last week before the game. Strong said Wednesday night on his radio program that his players have practiced much better this week.
"What has to be understood in this program is that when you've made a step, and we've taken that step, then you have to continue to build on that step," Strong said. "Players have to understand that there's no way of taking a step backwards. If you set a standard, now you have to live up to that standard. It is all about winning. Winning has to become a habit around here.
"A lot of times when you go win a football game – you go beat Kentucky and everybody thinks it's a big deal. You go beat West Virginia and everyone thinks it's a big deal. It can't become a big deal anymore. It has to be a habit within this program and we have to continue to build that. It has to be ingrained in these players. You can no longer roll your helmet out on the field. You can no longer roll the ball out on the field."
Ironically, despite their youth, Louisville's biggest wins this season have come on the road against Kentucky and West Virginia. The Cardinals finished the regular-season 3-3 at PJCS and seem to play better away from home.
"Sometimes on the road, you don't have the outside influences impacting them," said Strong. "Sometimes guys just take for granted that when we are home we are going to go win. It hasn't happened in two years. I said, ‘Our home record is not very good, so why would you not think you have to go get ready to go play?"
Though Louisville has a tough road challenge in Storrs, the Cardinals could find success through the air against UConn. While strong against the run – Uconn ranks 6th in the nation vs. the run – the Huskies are vulnerable against the pass, ranking 112th in the nation.
Freshman quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has steadily improved this season and will look to rebound from a sub-par performance against Pittsburgh. Bridgewater has completed 66 percent of his throws for 1,440 yards and nine touchdowns. He's also been intercepted eight times, including once last week against the Panthers. Bridgewater threw for a career-high 246 yards two weeks ago against West Virginia.