Back in the Top 25 this week after dropping out of the national polls following upset losses at South Florida and West Virginia, the Cardinals are looking for a little redemption against the Panthers and first-year head coach Dave Wannstedt.
"This is a big game for us," said Louisville coach Bobby Petrino. "This is our chance to get back into the national spotlight. We're going to be there Thursday night against a good football team. They've won three in a row."
Before the season, this game figured to have huge ramifications in determining the league's champion. And while Pittsburgh, currently second behind West Virginia, still has a chance at the Big East title, the Cardinals appear to be playing for a second-place finish, at-best.
The Panthers started the season slowly under Wannstedt, losing three of their first four games. But since falling 37-29 at Rutgers Sept. 30, Pittsburgh has looked and played like a different team, winning their last three games, including a 31-17 victory over South Florida.
"They've been the one's now forcing the turnovers, and not turning the ball over as much," Petrino said. "They're protecting the quarterback and running the ball better, and they're not giving up as many big plays as they were. They're just playing better football."
"When you look at them, they have two great big defensive tackles, a linebacker that runs all over the place (Blades), and two good corners," Petrino said. "Offensively, they really understand how to run the football. (Palko) didn't play well early, but now it seems like they're all getting more comfortable with the new offense and each other. So I think it's going to be a real good football game."
Palko has led Pittsburgh to three
straight wins heading into
Thursday night's ESPN showdown
"He reminds you a lot of Stefan (LeFors)," Petrino said. "He's got a quick release, he's very athletic. He's a little thicker than Stefan, but he's a good runner and can make the different throws. And he's a great competitor."
Turnovers and big plays, according to Petrino, will likely determine the outcome of Thursday night's showdown.
"Most of the time in games like this it comes down to turnovers and big plays," Petrino said. "Hopefully we can get some turnovers and we do need some big plays. One of our advantages needs to be out speed out in the open. But we'll have to get by two 300 plus pound guys to do that."
The Cardinals seemingly have one big advantage over the Panthers - Papa John's Cardinal Stadium. U of L officials announced last week that the game is sold out meaning that 42,000 plus fans will be on hand to give U of L help from the stands. Over the past two years, the Cardinals have been unbeatable at home, winning nine consecutive games.
"We've been very fortunate to get a lot of turnovers at home," said Petrino. "I do think the crowd and the enthusiasm have helped us a lot. Any time you're getting turnovers and a short field, maybe it easier to be more aggressive and throw the ball down the field."
Louisville will also get a boost from the return of junior running back Kolby Smith and linebacker Abe Brown. Petrino said that Smith, the Cardinals second-leading rusher, is in top form after returning to practice last week. "He looks good," Petrino said. "I think he's about 100 percent – he's cutting real quick. I'm a little concerned about his conditioning, so we've got to make sure he's getting enough breaks during the game. He's in good shape. He's ready to go."
Unfortunately for the Cardinals, receivers Mario Urrutia and Broderick Clark won't play against Pitt. Clark had surgery Monday and is out for the season. "Mario's out there running, but they're not ready to release him to play yet," Petrino said.
With the extra week to prepare, Petrino believes his team will be fresh when the Panthers come to town Thursday night.
"The week off was good to us," Petrino said. "I think we'll be ready to play. I think we look a lot fresher and emotionally we've come back quite a bit."