Louisville heads into its game against Kentucky without many positives. The Cardinals lost to FIU last week on the heels of a shaky win over Murray State.
Their offensive line has struggled. The defensive front has not played as well as coach Charlie Strong has expected. The running game has been grounded. Turnovers at inopportune times have hurt.
Now they face their rivals on Saturday, having lost four straight in the series, with the prospect of falling into a 1-2 hole off a highly successful 2010. Win, and all will be right -- at least for a day. So to say Louisville wants to win this game badly is an understatement.
"I feel outside of this program, a lot of people lost confidence in us," safety Shenard Holton said. "We want to show we're a good team. It would say a lot to the fans and the coaches to go out and win this game. This game is a national championship game for this city. We don’t have any professional teams, so a win over Kentucky will help our team out in a big way."
What was particularly painful about Louisville's loss last week was the handful of mistakes that cost the Cardinals the game. T.Y. Hilton got loose for two long touchdowns on shorter routes, going 74 and 83 yards on the scores. He ended with seven catches for 201 yards. Take away those two touchdowns, and Louisville was able to hold him to five catches for 44 yards, and the entire FIU offense to 92 yards.
"We know the mistakes we made and we know what we were supposed to do," Holton said. "We got lazy on a few plays and we didn’t communicate on a few plays. Those plays turned into touchdowns and were the outcome of the game."
Still, Holton knows Kentucky will try to hit Louisville the same way FIU did -- through the air. The Wildcats are not the most prolific passing team but they have hit on four pass plays of over 30 yards already this season. "We gave everybody a blueprint," Holton said.
Meanwhile, the Louisville offense has struggled to get any consistency going. A big reason is because the offensive line has five new starters, including a true freshman. As a result, the Cardinals have had a hard time establishing the run, averaging 3.1 yards a carry. Will Stein has been constantly harassed, and Louisville has given up seven sacks already on the year -- second worst in the league.
Offensive coordinator Mike Sanford is not contemplating any changes to the offensive line. What has hurt has been the loss of starting center Mario Benavides, out with an injury. There has been no timetable given for his return. All Louisville can do is just wait for its players to improve with more game experience. Tight end Josh Chichester said the offensive players have spent more time in the film room trying to learn from their mistakes.
"Once you know our assignments, you play faster and won’t have to worry about making mistakes," said Chichester, who leads the team with eight catches for 150 yards. "That’s what’s going on right now. We're confident in the offensive line. They can get the job done. We’re ready for this game. Last week is last week. We know what we did wrong, and hopefully we can showcase the corrections for the next game."
Strong said several times this week that Louisville is not a very good team right now. The Cardinals did lose 25 seniors and are one of the youngest teams in the nation. But still, his players are using his comments as motivation.
"Coach Strong wants us to step up," Holton said. "A lot of people don't believe in us, but our coaches do. He’s just trying to get us ready to go for this game, knowing how big this game is."