Cardinals looking more like contenders

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Don't count Louisville out of the Big East hunt after all.

The Cardinals seemed destined for a long rebuilding year after they got humbled 27-2 at home by Kentucky in their opener. Now, though, they must be wondering: why not us?

If Wednesday night's 38-29 win over Kansas State is any indication, there's no reason why Louisville can't make a serious dent in a wide-open league race.

Like bettors do with horses at nearby Churchill Downs, perhaps you should just throw out that game against Kentucky. A young team wasn't ready out of the gate, especially on offense where receivers and running backs too often didn't go to the right spots.

On Wednesday, that offense piled up a positively Petrino-esque 577 total yards, including 303 on the ground behind a pair of 100-yard rushers. The defense stopped the run, applied quarterback pressure and caused three turnovers.

"We've come a long ways, but we still have a long way to go," head coach Steve Kragthorpe said. "To me, one of the encouraging things is that we still didn't play a complete game tonight."

But it was a promising performance, particularly when you consider that the team is still missing its best receiver, Scott Long, who could return from a broken foot next week. And consider that the left side of the offensive line was patched together as three-year starting left tackle George Bussey and starting left guard Mark Wetterer watched from the sidelines with ankle injuries. Plenty of young players and junior college transfers were sprinkled throughout the game plan.

In other words, barring more injuries, this team only figures to get better.

"The overall pieces are there and we're starting to find more guys we feel good about," Kragthorpe said. "We've got potential, but potential is just a French word for not there yet. We've still got a lot of work to do to be the football team we want to be."

Louisville still appears to stand at least a notch below South Florida, West Virginia and probably Connecticut in the Big East pecking order. Special teams need a major overhaul, and there's no telling whether previously-untested Kansas State is actually any good.

Then again, UConn, South Florida, Cincinnati and West Virginia all have to come to Papa John's Cardinal Stadium this season. It's an awfully small sample size, for sure, but none of them have ever won a Big East game here. If the Cardinals can beat Connecticut next Friday night, they could easily take a 5-1 mark into the Oct. 25 date with South Florida.

"We think we're a good football team, and we think we can compete in the Big East," quarterback Hunter Cantwell said.

With Brock Bolen and Victor Anderson forming a thunder-and-lightning backfield, Doug Beaumont and Josh Chichester rapidly becoming top-flight receivers and defense that's going give an honest effort, things are suddenly looking up for the Cardinals. But they'll keep their underdog mentality for now.

"We're not out to make any statements or anything," Cantwell said. "This was a good win, but I don't think anyone is going to get too high on themselves. Everyone has still got the Kentucky game in the back of their minds."