By Rob Jones:
Last week’s game against North Carolina was enough to give even the casual Card fan a mild heart attack. What looked to be another coast-to-coast landslide victory turned into the Tar Heels having the ball with a shot at an improbable win. Both fans walking out of PJCS and players into the Schnellenberger Complex had the feeling of defeat even though the final scoreboard read Louisville 39, North Carolina 34.
Blame it on the prevent defense – which didn’t prevent anything but sure victory – over-confidence or overall youth, but what should have been a celebration for a revenge victory over a team from the poaching ACC turned into a red flag that Charlie Strong’s team might not be quite where they need to be yet. Although justified, that concern could be a blessing for a young team that has shown signs of brilliance – and immaturity – over the first 3 weeks of the season. A loss would have been absolutely devastating. A near loss could open up some eyes and get the team re-focused all without that dreaded 1 in the loss column.
Last year’s Louisville team seemed to play better on the road. Terrible losses against Marshall and this week’s opponent – Florida International – occurred in the friendly confines of Cardinal Stadium. Big victories against West Virginia and Kentucky (if that’s even considered “big”) happened on foreign territory. It was a mystery how such a young team appeared to be more comfortable away from home. Couple that assumed warmth away from home with the annoyance of a victory that had the feeling of defeat and the Cards may be right where they want to be heading into a month-long stretch away from home.
Florida International does not have the fire power that they did last season. T.Y. Hilton’s 2 TDs in the embarrassing game last year put him into the category of “Cardinal Killers” along with the likes of US Reed, Darnell Archey, and Stevie Johnson. The performance even led Louisville coaches to put signs around the football complex reminding players of 9-9-11 – the date that Hilton surgically dismantled their secondary. Fortunately, Hilton has moved onto the NFL and that has been reflected in FIU’s play so far this season. Coach Mario Cristobal carries a 1-2 record, a defense ranked 112th in scoring (39 PPG allowed), and a lone OT victory over Akron. Not exactly a glowing resume for a team trying to upset a top 25 squad on Saturday. Plus, fans can rest assured that FIU will NOT sneak up on the Cards like they did last season. If they do, Charlie Strong may go insane.
FIU has not held a team to less than 30 points this season. Duke laid 46 on the Panthers. Last season, Louisville’s offense was inept at the time and only put 17 on the board…at home. This season, with Shawn Watson taking over the offense and Teddy Bridgewater playing like a Heisman contender, the Cards rank 36th in the land in scoring offense, putting up over 35 a game. There is no reason why these numbers will not stay consistent on Saturday night in Miami where a large amount of players in the red-and-black will play in front of friends and family.
The Cards needed a scare going into this 2 week out of conference road trip. Over-confidence can be the death of a young team trying to meet (or even exceed) high expectations. The Carolina game stymied that. You could tell by listening to the players in the post-game and Strong in his weekly presser Monday. Sounds crazy, but one could argue that that heart-wrenching victory was just what the doctor ordered. The Cards are out to prove that last week’s second half was an out-of-character performance – you could even go so far as to call it a fluke.
Coach Strong and his bunch are starting to slowly but surely garner the national attention that was expected before the season. One way to ruin that would be to come out flat – not learning from last week’s second half folly – and head to Southern Miss without a zero in the loss column. As low as the Big East is already perceived nationally, if it’s pre-season pick for champion loses a game to a Sun Belt team for the second consecutive season, it will lose any of the luster it has left. Saturday’s game is huge for perception of both Louisville and their conference. A win is expected; a loss would be devastating.