Football

After surprising loss to Syracuse, Louisville refocuses with Big East title in sight

Heading into last Saturday’s matchup against Syracuse, Louisville had a lot on the line.

Nine wins. Zero losses. Louisville was three victories away from a blemish-free season, with the ranks of the unbeaten dwindling and the Cardinals’ long-shot hopes at a national title still alive.

But the Orange beat Louisville 45-26, and those dreams were gone.

“I’m disappointed in the way we played at Syracuse, but you have to give Syracuse credit,” Strong said in Monday’s Big East football teleconference. “They came in, they prepared to play and they just outplayed us.”

Now 9-1 overall and 4-1 in conference play, Louisville needs to quickly turn its attention to a new goal of winning the Big East. Despite the fast start that led the team to a No. 9 ranking in last week’s Bowl Championship Series rankings, the Cardinals are far from guaranteed the Big East title and the accompanying BCS berth. Rutgers now leads the conference at 4-0, and Cincinnati is 3-1.

Louisville has a bye this week before returning to action next week against Connecticut, and Strong has every intention of making sure his team keeps its focus. However, the chance for rest comes at an opportune time after five consecutive game weeks, Strong said.

“This week, open week comes at the right time for us,” Strong said. “Our players need a rest, mentally and physically.”

Despite the loss at the Carrier Dome, the Cardinals still have a lot going for them. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has played brilliantly, completing 70.9 percent of his passes with 21 touchdowns and just five interceptions, and the team has fought through a series of close games to achieve its 9-1 record.

The closing stretch won’t be without its challenges, though. Leading-rusher Senorise Perry tore his anterior cruciate ligament against Syracuse and will not return this season. The Cardinals will now give the bulk of the carries to Jeremy Wright, who has complemented Perry well so far with 680 yards rushing and nine touchdowns.

Wright is well suited to ensure that the loss of Perry won’t be an insurmountable detriment to the team, Strong said.

“I think we’ll be OK,” Strong told ESPN.com. “Senorise was a big part of our offense, but Jeremy Wright will take more of the load.”

Despite the outcome at Syracuse, the Louisville-Rutgers matchup on Nov. 29 still looms large in the Big East title race. If Louisville beats Connecticut and Rutgers to close the season, the Cardinals will win the conference.

Strong knows there’s still a lot at stake, and he doesn’t want players to start pointing fingers after last week’s disappointing performance.

“There are bigger goals still to be met for this football program,” Strong said. “One step back, we can’t turn it into frustration, excuse making, or poor individual habits. You’ve always got to look at what you have left, never look at what you’ve lost.”

After a tense midseason stretch, the Cardinals find themselves in control of their own destiny — not a bad place to be. One-possession battles with Florida International, Southern Mississippi, South Florida and Cincinnati could have gone the other way, but Louisville found a way to win each time.

The Big East title is in Louisville’s clear sights, and that should be plenty of motivation in itself, senior center Mario Benavides said.

“I think when you’re winning every game and you’re undefeated, each game gets bigger and bigger regardless of who you’re playing because you get closer to having that undefeated season,” Benavides said. “Being undefeated was never our main goal. Our main goal is to win the Big East, and we can still do that.”

One loss doesn’t make a season, Strong said.

“You’re still sitting at 9-1,” Strong said. “It’s not like you’re sitting here at 3-6. They need to feel it a little, and then understand just how important the next two are.”

Game of the Week

Rutgers at Cincinnati, Saturday, noon, Big East Network

In a game with conference title implications on the line, No. 22 Rutgers (8-1, 4-0 Big East) travels to take on Cincinnati (7-2, 3-1). Rutgers is coming off a 28-7 victory over Army last week — where it held the Black Knights to 55 passing yards, despite giving up a staggering 282 on the ground — and Cincinnati returns home on the heels of a 34-10 win at Temple.

After sticking with Munchie Legaux for most of the season, senior quarterback Brendon Kay was given the starting nod against Temple. In his first collegiate start, Kay was efficient, going 13-for-21 for 244 yards and two touchdowns. Matching up against the Rutgers defense, which is allowing an average of only 13.4 points per game this season, looks to be a stiff challenge for Kay.

Rutgers starting running back Jawan Jamison is 50-50 to play, coach Kyle Flood said Monday. Jamison hurt his ankle in the third quarter against Army, but returned in the fourth.

If Jamison can’t go, Flood said he is confident in backup Savon Huggins, who has rushed for 165 yards and two touchdowns in 2012.

Conference title scenarios

Here is each Big East team’s most direct path to the conference title.

Louisville: wins over Connecticut and Rutgers

Rutgers: wins over Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Louisville

Cincinnati: wins over Rutgers, South Florida and Connecticut; Louisville loss to either Connecticut or Rutgers

Syracuse: win over Temple; Cincinnati losses to South Florida and Connecticut; Rutgers losses to Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Louisville; Louisville loss to Connecticut

All other Big East teams have been eliminated from conference-title contention.

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