Cards overcome adversity for Big East title

After starting the season 2-4, Louisville capped a remarkable turnover with a 34-24 win over USF Saturday in Tampa that clinched a share of the Big East title.

After a loss to Cincinnati in the Big East opener, Louisville stood 2-4 on the season. Offensive coordinator Mike Sanford had been dismissed, the offense was struggling and the Cardinals appeared headed for a long season.

Louisville's 34-24 win over South Florida at Raymond James Stadium on Saturday afternoon gave the Cardinals an improbable share of the Big East title. Louisville, which won 5 of its last six games, including roads wins at West Virginia, UConn and USF, now can earn the league's automatic Bowl Championship Series berth if Pittsburgh and Cincinnati lose one of their final two games.

Strong and his players will be rooting for West Virginia Friday night against the Panthers, and Syracuse Saturday against Cincinnati.

Charlie Strong led Louisville to an improbable Big East championship.
Regardless of how the Big East BCS scramble plays out, Louisville's turnaround has been truly remarkable. Despite inexperience on both sides of the football, Strong's squad overcame the turmoil associated with Sanford's dismissal, several key injuries and a sluggish start this season to win the program's second Big East football title.

"Just look where we've come from," said Strong, who has guided UofL to consecutive seven win seasons. "We were 2-4 and this team has battled back and we go 5-1. We go on the road and win at Connecticut, at West Virginia and now we come to South Florida and get another road win. This is a team that has had adversity all year and they've been able to handle it."

Strong's troops again showed their resiliency Saturday against the Bulls. Trailing 17-3 late in the first half, sophomore running back Senorise Perry sparked the Cardinals with a long kick return that setup Teddy Bridgewater's touchdown to fellow freshman DeVante Parker. That score gave Louisville much needed momentum for the second half. Louisville pulled away late for the win, outscoring USF 24-7 in the second half.

"It was huge because we were killing ourselves early in the game, penalties and just not finishing," Bridgewater said of Louisville's touchdown just before the break. "For him to just get a return like that…I was actually standing on the sidelines and I said this is going to be a big return and he just broke it loose."

Though Louisville seniors Dexter Heyman, Victor Anderson and Josh Chichester played key roles in Louisville's comeback win over South Florida, Strong's youngsters led the way.

Bridgewater, who established the single-season passing record at UofL, eclipsing former star quarterback Chris Redman's mark, threw for 241 yards and three touchdowns against the Bulls. His maturation has been the main reason for Louisville's reversal of fortunes this season.

"Credit the kid (Bridgewater) he came out and got done what he needed to get done on third down," said South Florida defensive coordinator Mark Snyder. "We had him in our grasp a couple of times and he got away from the rush. Not only did he get away from the rush, but he made big plays once he got away from the rush."

Parker, another budding star, caught two touchdown passes, including the late score right before halftime that gave Louisville momentum heading into the break.

Freshman wide receiver Eli Rogers made several big plays against the Bulls to lead the Cardinals with 84 receiving yards.

Sophomore running back Dominique Brown, who led UofL with 70 yards rushing, converted a key fourth and one and scored the game-clinching touchdown in the final moments.

Sophomore Preston Brown led Louisville in tackles, while freshman Calvin Pryor recovered a fumble with the Cardinals holding a 27-24 lead.

Louisville has earned at least a share of the Big East championship. The Cardinals will go bowling for a second straight season and could still play in a BCS bowl. It's been an overachieving season for Charlie Strong's program. And with so many young players that played starring roles returning next season, the future looks even brighter for the Cardinals.

Louisville now will get some much needed time to rest and heal from a grueling 12-game schedule. They'll eagerly await the outcomes of the West Virginia-Pittsburgh and Cincinnati-Syracuse games this weekend, and hope an unexpected BCS bid comes their way.

"That's the reason I came to University of Louisville… to win championships," Bridgewater said. "The people outside the university may have counted us out when we were 2-4 but right now it's all about finishing."

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