LOUISVILLE, Ky. – With the Bowl Championship Series bid in the rearview mirror, the University of Louisville football team still has a lot on the line on Thursday night against 23rd-ranked Cincinnati at Nippert Stadium.
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The Cardinals can earn a share of the American Athletic Conference regular-season title – it would be Louisville’s third-consecutive regular-season crown – with a win over Cincinnati and a UCF loss to SMU.
While the Cardinals’ BCS chances were dashed last Friday night when UCF defeated USF, Louisville understands it can still grab a share of its third consecutive regular season-title with a victory over Cincinnati and a UCF loss to SMU.
“I don’t think it’s deflating (not going to a BCS game), because you’re looking at a team right now who’s won 10 games,” head coach Charlie Strong said at his Monday’s press conference.
“You’re sitting there 10-1, so we don’t get to the BCS. We’re going to get to another bowl game, but you can’t take away what we’ve already accomplished with 10 wins.”
Junior Jake Smith, who has been a part of 21 wins over the last two seasons, understands the Cardinals can close out the regular season with 11 wins and momentum heading into the bowl game.
“Obviously, you want to go to a BCS bowl and that’s what you strive for, but you can’t let that affect you,” Smith said. “Our body of work is what we put on the field, and that’s what we have to take pride in.
“If you want to take pride in your body of work, you can’t really look to what everyone else is doing. Obviously, we’d like to go to a BCS game and I don’t know how it’s all going to work out, but we don’t really pay too much attention to that.”
The Cardinals face one of their toughest challenges of the season against a Bearcat team that is 9-2 overall and owns an identical 6-1 league record with Louisville.
“You are looking at a team who hasn’t lost a home game, a team who has won six in a row,” Strong said. “You are going on the road to play against a really good football team that is my biggest concern.”
The Cardinals second-ranked defense will be tested by Cincinnati’s potent offense, which is averaging over 480.0 yards of offense and has one of the nation’s most accurate passers in Brendon Kay.
“Knowing we have to pack our defense and play very well on defense is important,” Strong said. “It will be a packed house with a sold out crowd. We have to go in and stay focused. We have to make sure we make them earn everything they get by not giving up the big throws or turn the ball over on offense.”
Senior defensive end Marcus Smith, who leads the nation in sacks, is ready for the challenge of facing a great offensive attack.
“Cincinnati has a running attack and a passing attack,” Smith said. “I feel like they are a great offense. The biggest challenge for us this week is going to be to stop the run. With Houston, they threw the ball a lot and their running game was average. With Cincinnati, their running game and passing game are both good. If we stop the run and get them in third and long, we will be able to accomplish things we would like on defense.”
The Cardinals and Bearcats have enjoyed a great rivalry over the years, and will likely be playing for the last time for the foreseeable future as the Cardinals will join the ACC next season.
“It has been very competitive,” Strong said of the matchup between the two schools. “You look at Dominique (Brown) and Preston (Brown) and some of the guys that are in our program who grew up in Cincinnati and they know a lot of those players there. You just hate to see a rivalry like the one we’ve established and now we’re going to walk away, because you’re going into a different conference now.”
Nippert Stadium, as it has been for each matchup, will be packed. The Bearcats still have BCS aspirations, inserting even more electricity into the atmosphere.
“It is going to be crazy,” Marcus Smith said. “I feel like the fans for Cincinnati will pack the house and it will be a hostile environment. As a team, we have been through this before, like playing Rutgers last year. I think we are prepared and we will be ready to go on Thursday.”
Louisville, which has the opportunity play spoiler in the Bearcats’ BCS hopes, remains focused on finishing the regular season with just one loss and returning the Keg of Nails back to the Derby City.