LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A rough November for Louisville still can end positively for the slumping Cardinals.
A victory at first-place Rutgers (9-2, 5-1) on Thursday night would not only snap a two-game losing streak but give Louisville (9-2, 4-2) the Big East championship and the conference’s berth in the Orange Bowl. The Cardinals hold all the tiebreakers: so a win and they’re in.
Rutgers, seeking its first BCS bowl berth, is in the same position.
“As we said before, it’s like the ‘Monday Night Football’ of college football,” Scarlet Knights coach Kyle Flood said in comments provided by Rutgers. “Thursday night, you’re the only game in town and everybody is watching. The No. 1 TV crew is here, the cameras are there. So it is a little bit of a different experience for the players when they come out.”
Flood said earning the program’s first BCS bowl berth would increase its national exposure and help with recruiting, as did getting its first bowl win in 2005, having a 10-win season in 2006 and winning for the first time at least a share of the Big East title this year.
“I think all those steps along the way help you build on what you talk to players about in recruiting, and that is that we want to play for championships every year,” Flood said.
Both teams lost Saturday and fell out of the AP Top 25 this week. Over the past two weeks, Louisville has looked like anything but a team that controlled its own destiny.
Louisville lost to Syracuse on Nov. 10. In the Cardinals’ triple-overtime loss to Connecticut on Saturday, star quarterback Teddy Bridgewater broke his wrist.
With their reprieve, coach Charlie Strong wants the Cardinals focused on what they can win, not what they have lost.
“What we really have to understand is we have a chance to go win a conference championship,” Strong said Monday. “We have a chance to go play in a BCS bowl game and also have a chance for a 10-win season.”
With the Big East’s first-ever championship game coming next season, Thursday’s contest will serve as a de facto title contest.
Disappointed as the Cardinals were after Saturday’s loss because of the missed opportunity to tie the Scarlet Knights — who fell 27-6 at Pittsburgh — they were consoled by remaining within a game of the league leaders.
Having Bridgewater available is another ray of hope in Louisville’s quest to end its slump.
Bridgewater broke his left wrist while being sacked by Connecticut linebacker Sio Moore in the second quarter but returned with a cast on it to rally Louisville from a 10-0 deficit in the fourth and force overtime. He threw an interception in the third OT to set up the Huskies’ game-winning field goal in a 23-20 victory.
Though the injury prevents the sophomore from taking snaps under center and eliminates Louisville’s play-action options, he can direct the offense from the shotgun, pistol and offset formations. Senior Will Stein, who relieved Bridgewater while he was being treated and took a snap from under center near the goal line in overtime, could be used as well.
Flood said Bridgewater “is one of the premier offensive players in our conference.
“I was really, really impressed with the accuracy with which he throws the football. He’s very comfortable in the pocket, does a great job stepping up,” he added. “But even when he has to move, he’s got a tremendous ability to deliver the ball in accurate places, sometimes across his body, sometimes really outcuts to the field from the opposite hash. So he’s got excellent arm strength, great accuracy. He really is the total package at quarterback.”
Louisville aims to stop a couple of troubling streaks against Rutgers. The Cardinals have trailed in the past eight games and Saturday’s was their second straight in which they fell behind early.
At least the Cardinals know they can win in New Jersey. Louisville has won the past two against Rutgers including a 40-13 rout in Piscataway two years ago.
“This is a complete football team coming to down this week,” Flood said of the Cardinals. “I think their record displays that. We’re very excited about it, and we’re looking forward to it. It should be a great atmosphere.”
Whether Louisville can make it three wins in a row on Rutgers’ home field depends on how well the Cardinals can put their recent struggles behind them. In spite of everything that has happened, they still can achieve their preseason goal of winning the conference.
“Our confidence isn’t shaken,” Strong said. “We’ve won nine games and have dropped the last two, but confidence is not an issue.”
Flood, too, said his team was looking forward to the challenge.
“I know we’re closing in on a sellout,” Flood said. “I know there’s some tickets still left, but it should be a tremendous atmosphere Thursday night in High Point Solutions Stadium, and we have a great opponent coming to town.”
(Press staff contributed to this report.)