It hasn’t been pretty. On Oct. 26 when Louisville beat Cincinnati, the undefeated Cardinals appeared headed to a final week showdown for the Big East championship and Orange or Sugar Bowl bid against fellow unbeaten Rutgers.
Since, the two have combined for four losses and two conference moves. Rutgers will join the Big Ten in 2014, and Louisville is anticipated to join the ACC in the same year. Nevertheless, the Big East championship is still at stake. D
on’t be surprised if a de facto conference championship game is completely drowned out with a Big East eulogy on the television broadcast, given the MO a certain network has presented during the league’s contests this season.
That’s a shame, too, because there are several intriguing plot lines at play. The obvious are the BCS implications riding on the outcome, but how each got here is significant; and not merely how they went 9-2 to this juncture this season, but the years leading up to this.
Tonight is the culmination of a long road back to relevance after Bobby Petrino left Louisville for the Atlanta Falcons. Plenty of programs would take a six-year gap between BCS bowl appearances. However, it’s not so much the duration between winning the league title in 2006 and playing for it again in 2012, as how dramatically the Louisville program declined.
Steve Kragthorpe had barely hung his plaques on the Louisville football office walls by the time the Cardinals were irrelevant. Not a single team under his direction went to a bowl game.
Enter Charlie Strong, one of the nation’s best assistant coaches who just couldn’t seem to get a head opportunity. The program’s trajectory under Strong has been an exact reversal of Kragthrope’s tenure, with a bowl appearance every year and gradual improvement from season-to-season.
Strong has restored pride in Cardinal football, and the rest of the nation has taken notice — so much so, his name has routinely surfaced in coaching vacancy speculation. It’s not unreasonable to suggest part of the move to the ACC is motivated to give a coach like Strong incentive to stay, particularly after the recent example UL has for what can happen when a winning coach leaves. Because the ACC is dealt into the new postseason format, its members will enjoy more perks.
The allure of hypothetical rewards two years down the road may not trump the immediate attraction of big name programs. Louisville players and coaches have the added distraction of conflicting reports that Strong interviewed for the Auburn opening this week.
Louisville doesn’t need the added headache in preparation for an opponent similar to the one that just beat the Cardinals. UL is coming off a bad loss to Connecticut, a tenacious defensive team that stifled the typically potent Cardinal offense. Louisville went scoreless until the fourth quarter, when quarterback Teddy Bridgewater flipped that late game switch that is becoming part of his repertoire.
The good news for Louisville is it moved the ball on the Huskies; Bridgewater passed for 331 yards on 30-53 attempts despite missing considerable playing time with a broken wrist and ankle sprain. The bad news is, well, Bridgewater has a broken wrist and ankle sprain.
In addition, Rutgers defense has typically been better than Connecticut’s. With do-everything linebacker Khaseem Greene setting the tone, the Scarlet Knights are allowing just 13.7 points per game. RU is coming off one of its weaker defensive efforts; the 27 points it surrendered to Pitt was the second most a Scarlet Knight opponent has scored. Not coincidentally, its other loss came when RU gave up 35 points to Kent State.
Louisville’s offense is charged with dictate the tempo. Rutgers typically won’t win a shootout, simply because it lacks the offensive consistency. Savon Huggins has emerged as a capable No. 1 ball carrying option, but quarterback Gary Nova has run hot-and-cold. The Scarlet Knights’ inability to get the passing and running games clicking simultaneously has resulted in several anemic performances in recent weeks.
Before it played in the Insight Bowl at the end of the 2005 season, Rutgers had one postseason appearance in the history of its football program. One. And we’re talking about the university that participated in the first ever college football game, so such a drought is meaningful.
RU is taking on the identity of the New York metropolitan athletic university, a distinction at the heart of its invite to the Big Ten. Rutgers’ emergence under Greg Schiano and now Kyle Flood has brought meaningful Div. I football to the area for the first time since Columbia was winning the Rose Bowl in the 1930s. The city is showing its support; the iconic symbol of New York, the Empire State Building, will be lit red.
It’s a symbolic measure of how far Rutgers football has progressed, but the next big step is earning its first BCS bowl berth.