Three weeks ago, Louisville was sitting at the bottom of the Big East, with a 2-4 record and a loss in its conference opener. Forget about any major aspirations ... just reaching a bowl game seemed borderline unrealistic.
Now, the Cardinals are 5-4, in sole possession of second place in the conference with a shot at the title and a BCS berth, and coming off a huge road victory over West Virginia. But for the momentum to continue, Charlie Strong's team will have to show the ability to handle success that has waxed and waned at various points this season.
Louisville faces Pittsburgh in its final home game of the season. The Cardinals haven't been great in their own stadium this season, and it will take focus against the Panthers to send their seniors out as winners with their title dreams still intact.
"We just want to make sure that this is a one-game series," Strong said. "We don't want our fans to get too excited. If you look at us in that Kentucky game, we go and beat Kentucky. The next week, we go lose to Marshall. Not taking anything away from Marshall, but we know that each week you have to be prepared to play. We have to make sure our focus and preparation is there for our football team."
Strong has no shortage of ways to motivate his team to pay attention. Both this year and last, big wins have too often been followed by momentum-stalling losses.
"What I said to (the team) was, 'We were in this position last year. We go lose to South Florida. Let's just make sure we handle our business at home. It's the last game for our seniors here at home, so let's make sure we send them out the right way,'" Strong said.
Senior defensive lineman Greg Scruggs, at least, says the players are paying attention.
"No, we don't talk about it at all," Scruggs said, when asked if the players discussed postseason possibilities. "We don't want to get ahead of ourselves. You start talking about a bowl game and then get kicked in the face for the last three games. Now you're sitting here saying, 'I wish I would've focused on one game at a time.' That is what we've set out to do. The main focus of the players is just to take it one week at a time."
--There's a jumble in the Cardinals backfield. Five running backs are listed as co-starters on this week's depth chart, so the guy on the field for the first offensive snap will be Victor Anderson, or Dominique Brown, or Jeremy Wright, or Senorise Perry, or Kamal Hogan.
--The Cardinals have gotten off to fast starts in each of its last two games, both victories. It scored on its first offensive possession both times, and finished each first quarter with 14 points.
--Louisville has surged thanks to the fast growth of its freshmen and sophomores, but the focus will turn to the upperclassmen on Saturday. It's the final home game for Louisville's 16 seniors, including key players like Victor Anderson, Josh Chichester, Dexter Heyman and Greg Scruggs. It will also feature the emotional return of Anthony Conner, the senior cornerback whose career ended when he broke his neck against Rutgers earlier this season.
SERIES HISTORY: Series tied 7-7 (last meeting, 2010, 20-3 Pittsburgh).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Teddy Bridgewater is playing beyond his years, and the Cardinals offense has exploded as a result. A big part of that has been the improved offensive line play, which will be challenged by a tough Pittsburgh defensive front.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Pittsburgh is a team that's had to change its identity to become more of a passing crew since Ray Graham's injury. The Panthers are struggling, but are still dangerous through the air and the Cardinals have been plagued by big plays at times this season, so there's plenty to be concerned about here. One note: Pitt has struggled with turnovers in recent weeks, so the opportunistic Cardinals defense could make them pay here.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "To be honest with you, every year I believe that we have a chance to compete for the Big East Championship. We just beat ourselves. Realistically, I believe in my team and I believe that we have the talent and the capability to go out and win every game that we play. We fail to execute and other teams take advantage and expose those mistakes. I believe in my team and everything that's happening should have been happening. You can't look back, you can only look forward and hope that we continue to progress and continue to make the strides that we've been making." -- Louisville DL Greg Scruggs, on whether he's surprised at his team's Big East success.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Pittsburgh at Louisville, Nov. 12 -- If Charlie Strong wants to keep his team from being overconfident heading into the weekend, he just needs to show the Cardinals game film of the last three contests in this series. Louisville has lost its last three meetings with the Panthers by an average of 25.3 points, and hasn't scored more than 10 points in any of those defeats.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Handle success. Pittsburgh's a very good team, but it's coming off a tough loss to Cincinnati and not playing with a ton of confidence. But it certainly wouldn't take much to wake the Panthers up, and a sluggish start from the Cardinals could switch the momentum of both teams in a hurry.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
CB Adrian Bushell -- Bushell gave the Cardinals back-to-back winners of the Big East Special Teams Player of the Week Award, as his blocked field-goal attempt was returned for a touchdown that changed the momentum of the game at the start of the fourth quarter (Chris Philpott had won it the previous week). But he also played a strong game in the secondary, which he'll have to do again against a Pittsburgh team more reliant on the pass since tailback Ray Graham's injury.
RB Dominique Brown -- Brown had 69 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries against West Virginia, but the biggest play came on a fourth-and-one at the West Virginia 43 in the fourth quarter. With the Cardinals nursing a 31-28 lead and wanting to maintain possession rather than giving it back to the high-octane WVU offense, Brown got hit in the backfield but still managed to gain the two yards needed to get the first down. Not a bad play for the ex-quarterback, and the kind of effort that will get him more opportunities in the weeks to come.
LB Dexter Heyman -- The senior is having a capstone season to remember, and he'd like nothing better than to continue that success in his final home game. Heyman leads the team with 61 tackles and has 10 tackles for loss and two interceptions.
--WR Josh Bellamy contributed in all three phases of the game against West Virginia, thanks to his first defensive appearance since high school. The wideout and special-teamer was in the defensive backfield for a series against the four-receiver set of the Mountaineers.
--S Shenard Holton has been held out of the lineup of the last three games for undisclosed reasons. He's not on the two-deep for this week's game either.