After winning five straight non-conference games to open the 2012 season, No. 16 Louisville begins BIG EAST action on the road Saturday at Pittsburgh (11 a.m., ET, ESPNU). Following their first bye week of the season, the Cardinals enter week seven as one of 15 remaining unbeaten teams in the nation and one of three from the BIG EAST Conference. With more than half the season left to be played, the emphasis for U of L staying focused on the immediate job ahead — this week’s game.
“It’s very challenging to continue to stay unbeaten,” Strong told reporters during his weekly press conference on Monday. “What’s key for us is to take each game week-in and week-out and don’t look down the road. We have to make sure that each week it’s a one-game season. If we make it a one-game season and our focus is there, then we’re going to have a chance to continue down that road.”
Louisville is 5-0 overall for the eighth time in school history and the first time since 2006. That 2006 season, which ended with the Cardinals’ first BIG EAST title and an Orange Bowl victory, was also the last time U of L won its BIG EAST opener. Louisville is just 1-6 in league openers since joining the BIG EAST, which reinforces the emphasis from Strong and his coaching staff on the one-game season approach for the team this season.
“We’ve had one week off and now we start the real season, which I call it the real season because it is the conference season,” said Strong. “And everything from here out counts. We’re going to make it a one-game season. Our preparation during the off week was about fundamentals and about technique. We know as we approach this new season that it is so critical that we don’t lose our focus and we maintain our preparation week-in and week-out.”
The Cardinals’ conference opener comes against a Pittsburgh program which has enjoyed some recent success against Louisville. The Panthers own an 8-7 lead in the all-time series and have won four straight overall against U of L. Last season, Louisville dropped a 21-14 decision to Pitt at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium after being held to just 280 yards of total offense. In the Cardinals’ last visit to Heinz Field in 2010, they lost 20-3 during Strong’s first season at the helm and Louisville hasn’t won at Pittsburgh since 2006.
“We have to know what we’re up against,” Strong said. “We have to make sure we go in there as a football team and we have to be prepared to go play that game. We haven’t been as locked in for this game the last two years.”
After seeing a steady dose of spread offenses during the first weeks of the season, the Cardinals will work to be more locked in against a more traditional offensive attack that emphasizes the running game. Directed by senior quarterback Tino Sunseri, the Panthers are scoring 26.0 points per game. Pitt has shown an ability to find success through the air while averaging more than 300 yards passing per outing as a team. However, their offense is built around the running game, which is averaging more than 155 yards per contest.
“This is a conventional offense,” Strong explained. “They line up and they say ‘here we are’ and it’s more about running right at you. ‘Can you stop us?’ Are you good enough to go and tackle this running back and get him down. There’s no spreading out. It’s about putting their hands in the dirt, come right off and hit you in the mouth.”
The running back who carries the load for the Panthers is senior Ray Graham, who is averaging 4.7 yards per carry and more than 83 yards per game this season. The talented tailback spent the offseason rehabilitating from right knee surgery after suffering a torn ACL in the eighth game of 2011. Despite the injury-shortened junior season, Graham earned First Team All-BIG EAST honors after rushing for 958 yards and nine TDs on 164 carries (5.8 avg.).
“Anytime you go down with a knee, especially at that position, it’s really tough to get back,” said Strong. “He probably isn’t running the ball as well as he was before he was injured, but it’s always tough when it’s a knee.”
Game Information: Louisville (5-0, 0-0) at Pittsburgh (2-3, 0-2)
When: Oct. 13, 2012 – 11 a.m. ET
Where: Heinz Field (65,050), Pittsburgh, Pa.
TV: ESPNU – Tom Hart (p-x-p) & John Congemi (analyst) 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: Pitt leads 8-7
In Pittsburgh: Pitt leads 5-4
Last Meeting: Pittsburgh 21, Louisville 14 – 2011 in Louisville, Ky.
Rankings: Louisville is ranked 16th in this week’s USA Today coaches’ poll and 18th in the latest AP Top 25; Pittsburgh is unranked.