LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- Home, they say, is where the heart is. Or where you hang your hat. Or something like that.
But home has not been sweet for the University of Louisville football team the past two seasons. In Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, the Cardinals have not exactly delivered. They are 6-7 at home under Charlie Strong, a fact not lost on the coach heading into a season in which his No. 25-ranked team has seven home games -- equaling the most the Cards have ever played in the facility in a single season.
"It's critical, home field is," Strong said. ". . . With the fans and support we get -- we pack it in here -- the home field advantage should be great. I say to guys, 'They're here for a reason, let's go give them a show. Let's not go out and mess around and flutter around and all of a sudden we look up and we're down and we go and lose a football game.'"
Sunday night, the Cards will go through a full dress rehearsal for the following Sunday's opener against the University of Kentucky. They'll go through the complete game-day experience, walk-through, meetings, getting to the stadium, getting into uniform, coaches' talks, pregame warmups, opening script.
But none of that may be enough. Strong said he's thought a lot about the Cards' home-field performance during the offseason, and is ready to make some changes in how the Cards handle home games. Word coming out of the program is that one adjustment will be a change of game-night venue. The Cards generally had spent the night before home games in a hotel near the stadium. They're expected to switch this season to one in a more remote location.
Strong could tell you -- but then he'd have to tackle you in the open field.
"We're going to try to change up some things and see if we can't get it moving in the right direction," Strong said. "I don't understand how we go on the road and play so well, then we get home and it's like we're sleepwalking out here."
One thing worth noting is that the statistical difference between the Cards on the road and at home last season wasn't great. From a numbers standpoint, offensively and defensively, they were largely the same team no matter where they played. One of the biggest disparities is that they were a minus-4 in takeaways in six home games, but were plus-3 in seven games on the road.
Statistically, U of L had the nation's sixth stingiest rushing defense in road games. But stats can be deceiving. That could be because U of L's pass defense gave up significantly more yards on the road.
Stats play their part, according to senior center Mario Benavides.
"Last year, the questions were, 'Why do you guys play so much better on the road?' If I knew, I'd tell you," Benavides said. "Home field is supposed to be so much of an advantage. I think we understand that. I think what happens is maybe, for whatever reason, if you win or lose a game home or away, stats start to build up and people put a lot of stock in that, and once players start to hear that maybe they think, 'Shoot, maybe we are better on the road.' And you get that kind of mindset. So I think right now, it's not really a big concern. . .. But for me personally, that's a goal of mine. Win every game at home. Why not?"
The Cards will play seven home games for just the third time in the stadium's history. No U of L team has won more than six games in a season in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium since it opened in 1998.
U of L's home domination reached its peak under Bobby Petrino in the 2004 and '05 seasons, in which the Cards went 11-0 and won by an average margin of better than 40 points.
One thing to be noted about the Cards' home heartburn the past two seasons -- every game has been close. No loss has been by more than one score (and conversion).
"I just think about the games we have lost here, and just look at that first year," Strong said. "It's fourth and a foot and I go for it and don't get it against South Florida and we lose that one. And then the next week we lose to West Virginia. If we get that fourth and one, who knows what happens the next week.
"Then you bounce out here last season, we lose to FIU, then we lose to Marshall and get beat by Pitt. The games at home, you have to win, because it's so tough to win on the road.
Junior defensive tackle Brandon Dunn said players have vowed to be on the lookout for complacency during game weeks for home contests.
"We get home and we get comfortable, get complacent," Dunn said. "We think we've already won. So we've got to have the same mentality for a home week as an away week. And we've got to get that mentality that nobody comes in here and takes what's ours. We've got to pay it more attention. We're going to have to point out the complacent stuff. Maybe a guy has his family coming down and is feeling good about himself, we've got to watch and make sure everybody is working hard all the time."
One group you won't hear Strong blaming is fans. In the past, he's exhorted the Cardinal faithful to get in their seats earlier and fill the stadium. But this year, he says the home atmosphere will be all on his players.
"Our fans are getting here, it's just we've got to play better," Strong said. "Our fans have done a good job. Look at our season tickets, and going and buying those (leftover) UK tickets. The excitement is here. Now we have to go get fans excited by the way we play."
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