If the University of Louisville football team wasn’t tested enough last Thursday at home in a 24-10 win over Rutgers, the Cardinals are going to be tried again Friday night when a talented UCF team comes into Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium for another nationally televised conference game.
The Cardinals, who improved to 6-0 and 2-0 in American Athletic Conference last Thursday, dominated a Rutgers team, compiling 461 yards of total offense and holding the Scarlet Knights to 12 yards rushing. The Louisville defense added to the performance with a season-high eight sacks.
The decision gave the Cardinals an eight-game winning streak, one of the longest in the country, and helped them move to No. 6 in the national rankings. However, as head coach Charlie Strong preaches to his players, that game is over, and it’s time to focus on UCF, which is 4-1 and 1-0 in the league, and played 11th-ranked South Carolina to a field goal.
“Central Florida is a very solid team, very multiple on offense and on defense,” Strong said. “They’re a team that doesn’t beat themselves. They went up to Happy Valley and beat up Penn State and had a very impressive comeback win against Memphis. So, we know our work is going to be cut out for us this week.”
To say the Knights don’t beat themselves is an understatement. They enter Friday night’s game ranked sixth in the nation in turnover margin, having turned the football over five times all season. UCF, though, is playing a team that doesn’t hurt themselves either.
Louisville, uncharacteristically, turned the football over three times last week against Rutgers, but it didn’t affect the outcome.
“We’re going to have to play very well,” Strong said. “We just want to improve every week. Knowing that, it’s going to be a great atmosphere on Friday night. Our fans did a great job on Thursday. I expect them to come back out in full flow and get behind this football team and give us the energy and enthusiasm in this stadium that we need.”
The Cardinals took on a Rutgers team last week that liked to pressure the quarterback, but Strong feels he will face a different team in UCF, which is a veteran-laden team and very sound on both sides of the football. While last Thursday was certainly a hard-fought win, the Cardinals were in control despite not converting a few times in the red zone. Louisville will have to be on top of its game in order to improve to 7-0 for the second time in two seasons.
“They’re two different opponents,” Strong said of Rutgers and UCF. “Rutgers brings a lot of pressure and they were a team that we were very familiar with. Now, with Central Florida, we haven’t played them before. They’re very solid on defense. What they do is they don’t beat themselves. They line up and they’re very gap sound and they make big plays in the secondary.”
The Knights are balanced on offense with Storm Johnson running the football and Blake Bortles at quarterback. Johnson is one of the top backs in the league, rushing for 455 yards and seven touchdowns. Bortles is steady, completing 64.8 percent of his passes and throwing for 1,334 yards.
“On offense, (Blake) Bortles does a great job of directing the offense,” Strong said. “Storm Johnson is an outstanding running back. They have receivers and the offensive line is a veteran group. It’s a senior-laden team on offense and defensively they’re still young, but it’s a good football team, a very good team.”
UCF will get a test from the nation’s second-ranked defense and the No. 1 scoring defense in the entire country. The Cardinals got after Rutgers’ Gary Nova all evening, forcing four interceptions. Conversely, the Cardinals’ pass rush will get a big test from an offensive line, which has allowed eight sacks all season.
“What we do is we’re going to bring a lot of pressure,” Strong said. “We’re a pressure team and I felt like this with Marcus (Smith) and (Lorenzo) Mauldin where we could win with four down. All year long, they have been doing an unbelievable job, so those guys were able to make pressure off the edge and once the quarterback stepped up, then we had a good enough push inside.”
The Cardinals know they are in for another stern test from a quality opponent that defeated Penn State at Happy Valley and played a strong SEC team to just a field goal, but Strong thinks UCF is a lot like his football team.
“I think they are a really good football team, similar to us,” Strong said. “I look at them on offense, they have a good quarterback; we have a good quarterback. They have good receivers; we have good receivers. Defensively, we are probably a little more aggressive than they are on defense. They are solid though and they are gap sound.”
The Cardinals are at the semester break of their schedule at 6-0 with six games to play. They passed the first major test last Thursday. Another will come on Friday night. If they can pass that exam, the Cardinals will be on a path to their third-straight league title.