Despite an injury plagued first half of the season, Bobby Petrino's team has steadily risen in the national polls after a 5-0 start to the season. Playing without running back Michael Bush for the remainder of the season, the Cardinals could get back quarterback Brian Brohm, who has missed the past two games because of a thumb injury, Saturday against the Bearcats.
"Where we're at right now is where we wanted to be," Petrino said. "We wanted to get through the non-league games 5-0 and have an opportunity to go in and compete for a Big East championship. Now we just have to get better each week and improve as the season goes on."
Heading into the Big East opener, Petrino has been pleased by the play of his defense, but would like to see improvement from rushing the ball and on special teams. Louisville ran for just 186 yards against Middle Tennessee last week, more than 50 yards below their season average. The Cardinals also allowed an 88-yard kick-off return for touchdown, the second allowed by U of L special teams this season.
"I'm still concerned about it, but I think we'll run the ball well," Petrino said. "We have to have balance and be willing to pass and run the ball. If they try to stack the box and put eight or nine guys down, we'll have to start throwing it more."
That's something the Cardinals can do with either Brohm or backup Hunter Cantwell in the lineup. Brohm's ability to beat defenses with his arm is well documented, and the 6'4 Cantwell threw for 340 yards and three touchdowns last week against the Blue Raiders.
"I think Hunter has improved tremendously," Petrino said. "He took a big step forward in that game. I really thought he grew up a lot."
Even though Cantwell has had center stage for the Cardinals the past two games – wins against Kansas State and Middle Tennessee – all eyes will be focus on Brohm from the start.
Will he play against Cincinnati? If so, will he start? Has his thumb healed enough to allow him to be effective against Mark Dantonio's tough Bearcat defense?
improved running game
Petrino, and Louisville fans, should know those answers at some point during Saturday's contest. Petrino told the media Thursday that he hadn't made a decision about Brohm's status for this Saturday's game, and likely won't make any announcement prior to kick-off.
Regardless whether Brohm plays or not, the offense will have their work cut out against the Bearcats (3-3, 0-1), who played top-ranked Ohio State tough for a half and lost just 29-13 at Virginia Tech.
"They're a much better football team," Petrino said. "They play great defense and they always have. It seems like every time we play them they have really good defensive ends that are fast and can rush the quarterback. They have 15 sacks right now and they're experienced at the linebacker and safety position. It's really the same guys we played against a year ago, except they have more experience."
The Cardinals also will look to get off to a better start in league play than they did in 2005. Last season, the Cardinals opened Big East play 0-2, dropping their first two league games against South Florida and West Virginia on the road. This year, the Big East appears a much more difficult conference, with two teams ranked in the Top 10 (West Virginia and Louisville) and another, Rutgers, ranked in the Top 25.
"It looks like a difficult league," Petrino said. "Before the season, everyone was saying West Virginia and Louisville. But now you look at the way Pitt is playing, and Palko's lighting it up. Syracuse is playing really good defense and leads the country in sacks. They do a great job of rushing the passer. Every game is going to be a battle and that starts this week."
Louisville has won the past three games against Cincinnati, including the last two games by a combined 116-29. At stake Saturday, the Keg of Nails.
"We're looking forward to the Cincinnati game," Petrino said. "It's a big rivalry game for us."
The game will be televised on ESPNU. Kick-off is scheduled for 3:34 p.m.