It wasn't supposed to happen – the Cardinals 28-21 loss to Syracuse. In fact, most expected Louisville, a 14 point favorite, to cruise past Syracuse last weekend at the Carrier Dome to set up an intriguing Big East Game of the Week today against Dave Wannestedt's Panthers.
It didn't work out as planned as the Cardinals were upended by the Orange for the second straight season to fall to 5-3 overall and just 1-2 in the Big East.
"We've got to learn that every play in a football game is a play that you have to make and you have to be consistent in order to beat any opponent," Louisville coach Steve Kragthorpe said.
Syracuse figured out that the Cardinals defense was vulnerable to a physical rushing attack. The Orange rushed for 207 with Curtis Brinkley having a field day against UofL's highly ranked run defense. Kragthorpe expects Pittsburgh to follow Syracuse's lead and try to pound the Louisville defense on the ground.
"This team that we're going to face is going to try to do the same thing," Kragthorpe said. "We've got to play better in terms of knocking down the run and tackling better than we did (against Syracuse). (Pittsburgh) is going to try to line up and ram it down our throat."
The Panthers average 165 yards rushing per game and are led by All-Big East running back LeSean McCoy. McCoy ranks sixth in the nation in rushing at 125 yards per game and has 15 rushing touchdowns. McCoy gets help in the backfield from LaRod Stephens-Howling, who has rushed for 270 yards and five touchdowns.
"It doesn't matter who is making the tackles we've got to get them on the ground," Kragthorpe said. "I don't care if it's the D-tackle, the five-technique, I don't care if it's the linebacker or the free safety. We've just got to get their ass on the ground."
Just a sophomore, McCoy has already rushed for 1,004 yards in only eight games this season. The Cardinals had all kinds of trouble stopping McCoy in a 24-17 win at PJCS last season as the then-freshman running back ran for 120 yards and one touchdown before fumbling near the goal line in the game's final seconds.
"I think both guys are very good players," Kragthorpe said. "You can't just focus on (McCoy) because Stephens-Howling can play too. They've got two really good tailbacks that have speed on the perimeter and can break tackles."
Since falling to Bowling Green in their season opener, Pittsburgh has won six of their last seven games, including a 36-33 4OT win at Notre Dame last weekend with backup quarterback Pat Bostick in for starting QB Bill Stull, who was out with a concussion. Stull is expected to start against the Cards this afternoon.
"I think they're playing well right now," Kragthorpe said. "They're doing a nice job of running the football and they've got a two-headed monster at tailback. They've got big, physical receivers and they do a nice job throwing play-action passes. And they've got a big, physical offensive line."
While the Panthers are adept at moving the ball on the ground with McCoy and Stephens-Howling, Stull leads a strong passing attack that averages 225 yards through the air. Derek Kinder is Pittsburgh's leading receiver with 257 yards and one touchdown this season. McCoy is also a threat out of the backfield with 229 yards receiving.
"We have to be prepared for some plays where they just throw it up to their receivers," said Kragthorpe.
On defense, Pittsburgh has been solid most of the season, though the Panthers did give up 54 points to Rutgers two weeks ago. The Panthers rank 36th in the nation in total defense, allowing just 318 total yards per game. Linebacker Scott McKillop leads the way with 10.3 tackles per game – tenth-best nationally.
"They're very aggressive," said Kragthorpe. "They're going to play a lot of man coverage but they played a little more zone against Notre Dame after giving up some big plays to Rutgers. They're still very aggressive with their blitzes and they're going to be very aggressive with their defense."
Louisville struggled offensively last week, scoring just 21 points against a suspect Syracuse defense on the road. The Cardinals will have to find a way to move the ball better through the air if they hope to get back in the winning column against a tough Panther defense.
"I think they're very talented on both sides of the ball," Kragthorpe said. "We're going to have to play extremely well to win this week."
It's a big game for both teams. The Panthers are tied for second in the Big East with Cincinnati with a 2-1 league mark. Louisville finds itself in sixth place with a 1-2 conference record and is trying to keep its bowl hopes alive with a big win against the Panthers.
"We'll bounce back from the loss to Syracuse, learn from it and become a better football team," Hunter Cantwell said. "We've got to put it behind us and focus on the last four games and playing the way we're capable."
TIME: Noon LOCATION: Pittsburgh TELEVISION Big East Network (WHAS in Louisville)
Louisville has won the past seven games in the series against Pittsburgh, including four straight in Pittsburgh.
Louisville leads the overall series with a 7-4 mark.
Dave Wannestedt is 0-3 against the Cardinals.