Louisville's Friday night game against rival Cincinnati may have lost some of its luster when the previously unbeaten Bearcats lost to Toledo on Saturday, but Charlie Strong said Monday that the ESPN2 showdown at PJCS is still a "big game for our program."
He's right. Though Cincinnati's first loss of the season dropped them out of the USA Today Coaches Top 25 poll, the 6-1 Bearcats represent the biggest challenge to date for the unbeaten Cardinals, who overcame South Florida 27-25 Saturday after Teddy Bridgewater directed a game-winning drive in the final minutes.
With Louisville, Cincinnati and Rutgers undefeated in the Big East, Friday's game between the Cardinals and Bearcats is a major head-to-head showdown between two of the league's top contenders. The winner will emerge in prime position to win the Big East championship and the conferences BCS berth this season, as well as the Keg of Nails, awarded annually to the winner of the contest.
"We're looking forward to the Cincinnati matchup," Strong said. "We haven't beaten them the last four years, two of them being the last two years we've been here. We had the lead at halftime in both games but haven't been able to put it all together in the second half.
"Cincinnati is a well-coached football team. Butch has done a real good job even though they did lose to Toledo. Their quarterback, Munchie [Legaux] is a really exciting player. [George] Winn does a really good job running the ball and we know we have to be gap sound.
"It's going to be an exciting matchup for us and we're really looking forward to it. It's another one-game season for us, and Cincinnati is next up for us. We know we have to improve on offense, defense and special teams. We're getting ready to hit a stretch where we're about to play some really outstanding football teams in this conference and we have to get better."
Cincinnati comes in with the top scoring offense in the Big East. The Bearcats, who also lead the league in rushing (225.7) and total offense (467), average 34.7 points per game. After giving up 197 yards on the ground against USF, Louisville's defense has another big challenge this week trying to stop George Winn, the second leading rusher in the Big East, and the Bearcats ground game.
"It's was all about not being gap sound and taking care of our responsibilities," Strong said. "You have to be able to get off blocks and if you an do that you can really stop the run. This is one of those games we have to stop the run."
Louisville also has to account for Munchie LeGaux, Cincinnati's talented 6-foot-5 quarterback. LeGaux ranks fifth in the Big East in passing, averaging 239 yards per game. LeGaux, who has completed 54 percent of his throws and has 12 touchdowns and five interceptions, prefers to attack defenses through the air, though he can escape pressure using his legs. Strong says the key against LeGeax is to keep him in the pocket.
"Munchie really doesn't want to run the ball. He'll stand in the pocket and throw the football," said Strong. "But if the protection breaks down he'll take off running similar to Teddy. He doesn't take sacks because he throws the ball away. You just have to keep him corralled in the pocket."
Despite losing several key starters, Butch Jones has quickly rebuilt Cincinnati's defense. The Bearcats are second in the league in scoring defense (16.8 ppt), sacks, interceptions and third down conversions.
"They're very aggressive and play hard," Strong said. "They get a lot of pressure on the quarterback. They lost a lot of players on defense but they play hard and run to the football."
Though Louisville hasn't beaten Cincinnati since upsetting the nationally-ranked Bearcats in Steve Kragthorpe's first season, Strong's teams actually led UC at halftime the past two seasons but couldn't hold the lead in the second half. While Louisville has seen second half leads against UNC and USF disappear the Cardinals have found ways to remain unbeaten this season.
"What we have to get over is when we get a lead we have to learn that's the time to really go play hard instead of backing off," Strong said. "Third downs have really hurt us and they're converting third downs on us."
And while the matchup against Cincinnati may not be of much national import, the game certainly has Big East title implications for both teams.
"We're undefeated and we feel like we're playing for something," Strong said. 'We're still in the conference race and to this point the last two years we haven't been. It's a big game for the program.
"Our team really respects Cincinnati. There's a respect factor there for our football team. It's not so much [importance] on the national scale. It's us vs. them. The players still look at it like Cincinnati is coming in here with one loss and we're undefeated. We can't take anyone lightly and have to handle our business."
More Charlie Strong Updates
On handling the rankings
"I tell our guys lets see where we end up at the end of the season. If we worry about rankings, then we go get beat and fall out of the rankings. Let's continue to get better and worry about our next opponents. We don't even talk about rankings."
On the goal line stand vs. USF
"It's all about consistency. We have not put together four quarters yet on defense. You look at the goal line stand…look what we can do.
On defensive end Lorenzo Mauldin
"Lorenzo as hard as he plays in the game he goes that hard at practice. Every day at practice, you kind of laugh and tell him to stay him away from Teddy because when we go offense against defense you cringe every time he runs because he'll beat the tackle and he's right up on Teddy. But the thing about him is he only knows one speed and goes hard all the time. He's played well the last two weeks and he's exciting to watch. He can turn it on and really rush the passer."
On injuries for Cincinnati
"Burgess could have played but we didn't need him. Jake [Smith] kind of got banged so we took Kupper and moved him to the other guard and brought in [Nacho] Garcia. And Miller was able to come back in the game. That's the thing about these short weeks you'd like to have a little more time to get your guys treatment who are banged up. We don't have any serious injuries, but we have nicks and bruises. We have enough time to be able to get those guys back for the game. Daniel Brown is out and won't play on Saturday."
On Nacho Garcia
"Just because of the way our bumps and bruises are [on the offensive front] he's going to get a chance to play a lot. He's big, he can cover up people and moves well enough to protect the passer. He will continue to play. He's in the rotation and will get a number of snaps. What Nacho has done he's reshaped his body and lost a lot of weight. He still can move with his size."
On the Big East
"You can't look at teams records. This is still a very solid league. I put up a board so our players can see the match ups who we're playing and who everybody else is playing so they understand you have to play each week. I think it's a very competitive league with some really outstanding team."