Charlie Strong and the Louisville football team are three-point underdogs against Rutgers Thursday.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The motivational signs taped across the Howard Schnellenberger Football Complex Monday were as basic as they have been all season:
That's it. Beat Rutgers and all will be forgiven about the Cardinals' current two-game losing streak. Lose to Rutgers, and all will be forgotten about the Cards' 9-0 start.
The questions asked of Louisville coach Charlie Strong were just as elementary. No further discussion about the fairness of the Bowl Championship Series ratings. No inquiries about whether Strong or his representative had received an inquiry from Tennessee or the other high-octane coaching openings. Not a word about how Louisville would perform against a Top 10 team.
The signs in the complex said: Beat Rutgers. The questions asked of Strong were words twisted in a dozen ways of asking the same thing:
Can Louisville beat Rutgers?
"No, (his players') confidence isn't shaken right now," Strong said. "You won nine games. Confidence is not an issue, but you always want to talk about confidence because when you go on the road you have to walk in there knowing that you're going to go win the football game."
If Strong needed doubters to question his team, he has plenty of them now. Most of the external indicators wonder if Louisville can deliver. Vegas has picked a favorite – and it is Rutgers by three points, a betting line that was improbable three weeks ago when Strong's team was 9-0.
There are six computer formulas used in the Bowl Championship Series formula. All six rank the Scarlet Knights better than Louisville, two by as many as 13 spots.
The bowl projections on the national web sites that had Louisville playing in the Orange or Sugar Bowls have now downgraded the Cardinals to the Russell Athletic Bowl.
Teddy Bridgewater, the unflappable Louisville quarterback, will play with his broken left wrist in a cast. He will only take snaps in a shotgun formation. Will Stein will be the guy in tight handoff situations.
Temperatures in Piscataway are expected to be in the mid 30s Thursday evening and could drop to 26 degrees by the fourth quarter. Not idyllic conditions to catch a funky snap with one bad hand.
The offensive line didn't fire Saturday against Connecticut – and Rutgers has been nearly as formidable stopping the run as the Huskies have been.
"It's going to be critical for us to run the football," Strong said. "That's who we are. You look at Saturday we were not effective at all. Connecticut was big and strong up front and they two-gapped us and did a good job. We're a gap-scheme team and we didn't gap the seams on the defense.
"But we have to get our run game going. We have to have people come off and attack people and make sure we have the right play called. When you double guys, just move them out of the way."
It isn't a matter of whether Strong and offensive coordinator Shawn Watson understand what is wrong. They do. It is a matter of whether they can fix the issues during only a five-day turnaround.
The Scarlet Knights have been the toughest team in the Big East to score against. They allow fewer than 14 points per game. Only three teams have scored more than 15 against Rutgers.
Of course, one of those teams was Pittsburgh – and the Panthers overwhelmed the Scarlet Knights last Saturday, outgaining them by 158 yards in a 27-6 victory. A week earlier, Rutgers scored only 10 points, but beat Cincinnati, 10-3.
Beat Rutgers and it's 10-2, high fives and confetti, a likely trip to the Orange Bowl and more chatter about other programs making a run at Charlie Strong.
Lose to Rutgers, and it's 9-3, a puzzling, three-game losing streak, a flat, abrupt ending to a season that crackled with optimism three weeks ago.
"You don't want to think about 9-3, you just want to go get this next game," Strong said. "Just hoping it falls our way, and if we play well enough it should."