When Charlie Strong held individual meetings with several of his players two weeks ago, his message was clear.
"I told our players in those meetings, 'You tried it your way. Let's try it our way,'" Strong recalled earlier this week.
The Cardinals were 2-4 at the time, with an offense that moved about as quickly as a traffic jam. The defense, built to be the strength of this team, had given up way too many big plays and blown two fourth-quarter leads. Strong was tired of players not trusting in the system. But maybe more importantly, he was tired of the players not trusting each other.
He needed to get through to them, and the players needed to get through to each other. Players were honest about where things stood with the team. Strong listened.
Since then, the Cardinals are 2-0 and squarely in the middle of the Big East race heading into a huge game at West Virginia on Saturday. Both teams are 2-1 in conference play, and a win would keep them near the top of the conference standings.
"Since the meetings, we've really got more trust with each other now," linebacker Preston Brown said. "You can see that in the locker room and everywhere else. We got stuff out in the air, and we became closer. We didn’t separate. Everybody was honest about what was going on, we respected everybody’s honesty and we came closer."
The Cardinals are coming off perhaps their best game of the season after limiting Syracuse to 10 points and scoring a season-high 27. There has been improvement on offense in the past two games with Shawn Watson calling the plays. The offensive line, the weakest part of the team in the early going, has played much better both in the run game and with pass blocking as continuity has been developed among a unit featuring four new starters.
That has allowed Louisville to run the ball, the calling card of a Strong-coached team, and something that is of even greater importance with a true freshman playing at quarterback. Defensively, missed assignments have been sharply reduced. Players are swarming to the ball, tackling better and in position to make plays.
Brown, for one, has come on in the past two games. He had two of the team's four sacks against Syracuse and said he has felt himself improve because he is not merely watching film. He is studying film, watching for tendencies, understanding schemes and looking for hints about what teams like to do in the run and pass game.
He and his teammates now have Louisville ranked in the top 12 nationally in scoring defense (No. 11), rushing defense (No. 12) and total defense (No. 12) -- on pace to finish better than the team that went to a bowl game last season.
"We’re playing really good as a unit," Brown said. "Everybody knows what everybody else is doing, and we're playing good fits. The longer we go into the season, the better we’ll get."
Louisville starts three freshmen on defense, so there was some growing up that had to be done as well. As for whether the Cardinals can have a say in the Big East race, they do need some help for that to happen because they already have a loss to league leader Cincinnati. If the Cardinals can win out and Cincinnati loses twice, then watch out.
But for that to happen, they have to beat a West Virginia team that presents the biggest challenge of the season. Louisville has only won in Morgantown once, but never as a member of the Big East.
"We're just taking it one game at a time," Brown said. "We just know we have to go out there and try to win. We know everybody thinks they’re going to beat us, so we are going to go out with the mindset that we can beat them every week."