Weekend Preview: No. 17 Cardinals Visit Southern Miss

For the second straight weekend, 17th-ranked Louisville will take to the road as they travel to Hattiesburg, Miss., to renew the long-time rivalry with former conference foe Southern Mississippi. The Cardinals and Golden Eagles will kick off on Saturday at 8 p.m., ET at M.M. Roberts Stadium in a nationally televised game on CBS Sports Network. U of L enters its final non-conference game with a 4-0 record following last weekend’s 28-21 win at FIU, while USM is off to its worst start since 1976 with a 0-3 mark. However, Cardinals’ head coach Charlie Strong doesn’t want his squad paying attention to the record of this week’s opponent as much as he wants them to be ready to perform every time they take the field.

“I told our guys from here on out, we’re going to get the best. Whomever we play, we’re going to get their very best, so don’t ever look at someone’s record, especially when you’re going into someone else’s house,” said Strong. “What we have to do is maintain our focus and not get caught up in the emotion of the game. We must stay level-headed. We’re going to get someone’s best no matter where we go play, so it’s all about us making sure our guys are locked in and focused.”

Saturday night’s game will renew a rivalry between Louisville and Southern Mississippi which dates back to 1949. With 29 previous meetings between the two programs, the rivalry with USM ranks as the fourth most-played series in the Cardinals’ previous 93 seasons of football. From the historic Conference USA matchups from 1995 to 2004, to Louisville’s Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl win over the Golden Eagles in 2010, the two programs have a track record of great games. However, don’t expect this year’s Cardinals to fully appreciate the history between U of L and Southern Miss going into Saturday’s game.

“I try not to bring it into the discussion with the team but the history is still there,” Strong said. “Back then, we were in the same conference (as Southern Miss), but our players just don’t understand the old rivalries so I try not to bring that up to them. I just tell them this is what we have to do and talk about our focus. We’re going into a hostile environment and I think they have a blackout promotion scheduled down there, so we’ll see how well we can manage ourselves.”

The Golden Eagles enter Saturday’s game following a disappointing 42-17 defeat at Western Kentucky last Saturday. Prior to that, they suffered losses at Nebraska (49-20) and at home against East Carolina (24-14). Despite those results, the reigning Conference USA champions have talent up and down the roster. Most notably, Southern Miss ranks No. 5 nationally in kickoff returns with a 32.3-yard return average, while senior receiver Tracy Lampley ranks No. 7 in that category for an individual at 36.80 yards per return.

“On offense, it’s a spread and they play two quarterbacks (Anthony Alford and Ricky Lloyd). The thing about their quarterbacks is that they’re so athletic and they try to run the ball,” said Strong. “I think they return six starters on offense and defensively, they return five. They’re very multiple on defense with a 4-2-5 look where they play five defensive backs. What is going to be critical for us is we have to execute. We have to play within ourselves and make sure we’re consistent in every phase.”

Louisville’s execution and consistency has not been at the level expected by Strong and his coaching staff through four games. Despite the unbeaten record, the Cardinals have not played a complete game according to Strong and are still learning how to finish games. After the second half struggles against North Carolina two weeks ago and last week’s inconsistent play at FIU, Louisville still has plenty of room to grow and get better entering week five.

“You would like to say we can still improve and we can still get better, and that’s what you want to see this football team do. We just haven’t been consistent,” Strong said. “You go into game one, and game two and game three you get a big lead, and the last two quarters – even the fourth quarters from the past games – six quarters, I don’t think we’ve played our best football. It’s kind of where we hit that spell, and so we can get better. We want to see that improvement. I said to the team (Sunday), ‘If you want to be the football team you want to be, if you want to be a good team, then continue on the level you are. If you want to be a great team, then we can step it up and go get better.’ That’s what you want to see, for us to become one of those teams where we can step it up and get better.”

Game Information: Louisville (4-0) at Southern Miss (0-3)
When: Sept. 29, 2012 – 8 p.m. ET
Where: M.M. Roberts Stadium (36,000), Hattiesburg, Miss.
TV: CBS Sports Network – James Bates (p-x-p), Aaron Taylor (analyst) and Evan Washburn (sideline) will broadcast the game live.
Radio: The Louisville Sports Radio Network with Paul Rogers (p-x-p), Joe Tronzo (analyst) and Doug Ormay (sideline) calling the action
Series Record: USM leads 18-10-1
In Hattiesburg: USM leads 11-3
Last Meeting: Louisville 31, USM 28 – 2010 in St. Petersburg, Fla. (Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl)
Rankings: Louisville is ranked 17th in this week’s USA Today coaches’ poll and 19th in the latest AP Top 25; USM is unranked.

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