Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- One of the last things the Louisville football players see as they leave their locker room and head to the field is a sign that reads "Find a Way."
"Coach K [Steve Kragthorpe] is big into that," defensive tackle Earl Heyman said. "Whether it's ugly or bad, just find a way to win. That's the only statistic that matters."
The motto might not carry the same inspirational tones as "Play Like a Champion Today," but it's appropriate for this Cardinals team. Last year, they hardly ever found a way to win big games, going 6-6 in Kragthorpe's first year and losing five of those games by nine points or fewer.
This year, they are looking like one of the Big East's most pleasant surprises. Saturday's 24-20 upset over No. 16 South Florida was probably the biggest win of Kragthorpe's two-year tenure, and it marks his first three-game winning streak at Louisville. At 5-2 and 1-1 in the conference, the Cardinals are in as good a spot as anybody in this wacky Big East race.
"This means we're a contender again," center Eric Wood said. "If we lost this one, it would have been really tough to win [the league]. We stayed in contention."
They did it by finding a way. The Cardinals were outgained 352-323 by the Bulls, but when South Florida took the lead in the fourth quarter, Louisville immediately answered with a six-play, 63-yard touchdown drive.
The defense harassed Matt Grothe all day, registering five sacks through pressure up the middle by defensive tackles Heyman and Adrian Grady, who had two sacks each. They came up with two interceptions, including Johnny Patrick's game-sealing pick as Grothe struggled to escape Heyman's grip. They baited South Florida's aggressive defensive front into several offside penalties with quarterback Hunter Cantwell's hard cadence and Wood's quick trigger snaps.
"We know we have a very good football team, though we don't always show it," Cantwell said. "People from the outside might say 'Louisville's back,' but we felt like we've been back since the start of this year."
They didn't show it in an season-opening 27-2 loss to Kentucky or in a second-half collapse against Connecticut in their first Big East game. But this is a team with a lot of new faces that seems to be getting better as the season goes along. It can match last year's win total next week at Syracuse.
Receiver Scott Long said the mood in the locker room after the win was as joyous as he could remember since the home win over West Virginia in 2006. Players doused Kragthorpe with a tub of water in the final seconds. The embattled coach is starting to find more support from the fan base, though there were still large swaths of empty seats at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.
If Louisville keeps finding a way, who knows where they will find themselves in December,
"We need to finish out the season strong," Wood said. "Great things can still happen for us."