The Cardinals, tied for first in the Big East with Rutgers, will have a lot at stake in Tampa. With a win over the Bulls, Louisville would win a share of the Big East title and position themselves – with losses by Cincinnati and Pittsburgh – to receive the league's automatic BCS bid.
Though Strong doesn't want to discuss that three letter word – B C S – with his players, he was encouraged by their performance in Saturday's 34-20 win at UConn. After a disappointing loss to Pittsburgh, Strong's young players regained focus, prepared well in practice and delivered a solid all-around effort against the Huskies.
"I was happy the way our team prepared and focused all week and all three phases played well," Strong said.
"If you look at us offensively we were able to drive the football. We had drives of 81, 95, 68 and 64 yards. We had the ball in the red zone and we scored touchdowns.
"On defense, UConn had been a team that was running the ball very well and we held them to 76 yards rushing. We made plays at the right time.
"In the kicking game, Bushell returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown –so all three phases played well. The preparation and focus was there. Our players understood that they had to go win this football game and they played very well."
Now, Louisville has to quickly prepare to go on the road again for Friday's 11 am kickoff. With a shortened practice week, the Cardinals are cramming to get ready for the Bulls. One good thing: Louisville's players won't have classes after Tuesday because of the holiday break, which should minimize the "outside" on-campus influences on Strong's young players.
Strong knows his team faces a tough challenge against the Bulls. The Cardinals have never beaten USF in Tampa and Strong likely will remind his players of that fact as they prepare to face the struggling Bulls, who lost to Miami last week and could be without starting QB B.J. Daniels.
"We haven't won down there in four trips," said Strong. "It's one place we haven't played well. Some of the most embarrassing losses have been in Tampa. So we need to get our team focused and prepared to go play a really good football team. We know it's going to be a good test for us."
Strong's players have struggled with their focus at key points this season, namely after big road wins against Kentucky and West Virginia. How will the Cardinals avoid distractions with a share of the Big East title on the line this week?
"More than anything we have to make sure the preparation is there," said Strong. "It's more about the outside influences. What they have to understand is what has gotten them to this point is that they have been able to lock in at the right time. Now, not always. So they can't listen to the outside influences and can't be distracted. They have to make sure now that they have a chance to go get a piece of this championship and if we're who we think we are if we prepare the right way we have a chance."
That Louisville, who once stood at 2-4 overall and 0-1 in Big East play after a three-game losing streak to Marshall, UNC and Cincinnati, can win a share of the league title by beating USF is hard to believe. The Cardinals were picked to finish next to last in the Big East.
"It (speaks) volumes for this program," Strong said. "We have sputtered along the way and I don't know how good we are. But our coaching staff has done a tremendous job getting these players ready each week. We've had a lot of players switch positions and we've played some unknowns some games. They've fought hard and competed well. These kids want to win."
Parity reigns supreme in the Big East this season. Louisville and Rutgers are tied for first place in the standings, one half game ahead of Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and West Virginia, who are all 3-2 in the league and have two games still remaining.
"It's a conference with a lot of parity," Strong said. "It's all about making plays and being prepared and focused. We've tried to stress that each week with our guys. Sometimes they get it, but not always. It speaks volumes about this conference that anyone can win it no matter where you were picked."
Two University of Louisville football players were named BIG EAST Players of the Week following the Cardinals' 34-20 win over Connecticut last Saturday, the league announced.
Senior linebacker Dexter Heyman (Louisville, Ky.) was named the BIG EAST Defensive Player of the Week, while junior Adrian Bushell (DeSoto, Texas) was tabbed the Special Teams Player of the Week. Heyman led a defense that limited the Huskies to just 76 rushing yards, helping the Cardinals to their fourth win in their last five games and making Louisville bowl-eligible for the second consecutive season.
Heyman recorded seven tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, a sack and an interception in the win over Connecticut. Heyman has been credited with 14.5 tackles for loss this season and also registered his team-leading third interception in the fourth quarter.
Bushell returned the opening kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown to send Louisville on its, putting the Cardinals in a first-place tie in the BIG EAST standings with one game remaining. Bushell averaged 68.0 yards on two kickoff returns against the Huskies.