NCF Nation: Justin Burke

Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl Louisville keys

December, 21, 2010
Three keys for Louisville against Southern Miss in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl on Tuesday night:

1. Establish Bilal Powell: Cardinals coach Charlie Strong calls his senior-led offensive line the backbone of the team, and he believes they can run on anybody. Southern Miss finished 13th nationally against the run this year, allowing just 113 yards per game on the ground with 300-pound run stuffers like John Henderson and Anthony Gray in the middle up front. Louisville's offense usually goes as running back Powell goes, and the more successful he is, the more Southern Miss' offense has to stay on the sideline.

2. Make something happen in the passing game: Adam Froman started the first eight games at quarterback and played pretty well before suffering a deep thigh bruise. Justin Burke took over for the final four games before getting injured himself in the finale at Rutgers. Both should be ready for Tuesday night, and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford said he expects both seniors to play. Louisville's passing game didn't do much the final month or so of the season, but the opportunities should be there against a Golden Eagles defense that ranks 103rd nationally against the pass. Whoever is in at quarterback needs to take advantage and avoid mistakes, because beating Southern Miss will probably require a score somewhere in the high 20s or more.

3. Contain Austin Davis: The Golden Eagles rely a lot on Davis, their quarterback. He has close to 3,000 yards passing and is third on the team in rushing. Play the pass too much, and he'll slip in a few big gains on the zone-read play. Louisville has done an excellent job all year of applying pressure from confusing angles in defensive coordinator Vance Bedford's scheme. The pressure has to get to Davis and not let him burst free, or he can do some serious damage.

Charlie Strong is just getting started

December, 13, 2010
Charlie Strong's first season with the Louisville Cardinals got off to an inauspicious beginning.

[+] EnlargeCharlie Strong
AP Photo/Tim LarsenLouisville coach Charlie Strong led the Cardinals to a bowl game for the first time since the 2006 season.
In the season opener, Kentucky needed just two plays to score a touchdown. Strong remembers talking to defensive coordinator Vance Bedford over the headset and saying, "This is going to be a long season."

But the Cardinals kept improving and finished with a 6-6 record that most people didn't think was possible. They will be bowling for the first time since the 2006 season when they take on Southern Miss in the Dec. 21 Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl.

Strong has received a lot of credit, and was named Big East co-coach of the year along with Connecticut's Randy Edsall. But he says the team's seniors deserve the recognition.

"The reason we're in a bowl game is because our 25 seniors decided to lead this football team," he said. "We made tremendous strides because of the leadership of our seniors. I didn't set any goals in terms of wins or losses; I just wanted to put a product on the field everybody would be pleased and happy with. Each game we got better and better."

The turning point this season, Strong said, came in the third quarter of the third game at Oregon State. Louisville trailed 35-14, and Strong said he called the defense together on the sideline.

"Guys," he said, "we're not going to get embarrassed out here, so you'd better start playing."

After that, Oregon State didn't score again, and the Cardinals got two touchdowns to get back into the game. They failed to tie it up on the final drive, but they learned that day that they could be competitive.

"You could see it right then," Strong said. "I told them, from here out, there's no reason we can't go play."

Strong couldn't say enough about his seniors at a news conference on Monday, and he has to make a choice between two seniors as his starting quarterback for the bowl game.

He said Justin Burke, who started the final four games after Adam Froman injured a thigh muscle, is the starter. But Froman is practicing, and both should be available to play against Southern Miss. He said he is comfortable with either one, or junior Will Stein, who filled in for an injured Burke in the season finale at Rutgers.

This is the first season Strong has been a head coach, but it's not his first bowl game in that role. He was interim coach for Florida after Ron Zook got fired and Strong led the Gators in a Peach Bowl loss to Miami in 2004.

"That was a really tough bowl experience," he said.

Speaking of Florida and Miami, Strong's name popped up in the searches for new coaches at both those schools. While Strong didn't say whether he was contacted by either school, he said he wasn't interested in either job and that he was "locked into" Louisville.

"An AD hired me and gave me the keys to this program, and I owe him a lot," Strong said. "I will never, ever chase a job. I'm totally committed to this job here.

"I don't see myself walking out on a program in one year to go chase another job. I have a really good job here."

Strong has done a really good job in just one year at Louisville. It could be the start of something big.

"We said, let's just get to a bowl game this year," he said. "And from then on, we'll take the program each year and make it better and better."

Louisville up big on Rutgers at halftime

November, 26, 2010
Louisville is down to its third-string quarterback, a guy who hadn't thrown a pass all season before Friday.

Yet the Cardinals are in a lot better shape than Rutgers. They lead 28-7 at halftime and are just 30 minutes away from clinching a bowl slot.

Bilal Powell has rushed for 90 yards and a touchdown and has caught two touchdown passes. Justin Burke was sharp early but had to leave after experiencing back spasms. No problem. Will Stein came in and threw a touchdown pass of his own. Former starter Adam Froman remains sidelined by a deep thigh bruise.

Rutgers was down 28-0 before Jordan Thomas got a score late in the half. That was like putting a cherry on a bowl of mud. The Scarlet Knights have been brutal on both sides of the ball and have now given up 97 points in their past six quarters.

The late touchdown showed that Rutgers hasn't completely surrendered. But it would take a near miracle comeback for Louisville not to erase some of the pain from its past two nightmarish trips to Piscataway.

Louisville jumps on Rutgers

November, 26, 2010
Rutgers has now given up 83 points in a little more than four-and-a-half quarters. Not that we're counting or anything.

Louisville has marched right down the field on both possessions so far, with each ending in a touchdown pass to Bilal Powell. It's 14-0, and the way both teams are playing, the lead seems like it's twice that big.

Cardinals quarterback Justin Burke is slicing through the Rutgers pass defense. And remember, this is a Louisville team that hasn't managed 160 passing yards in more than a month. Burke has all kinds of time, and the receivers are running free. The Scarlet Knights are a mess on defense right now, and the offense isn't much better.

Home fans are already booing Rutgers in the first quarter. If things don't change, the Scarlet Knights will be eliminated from postseason contention, while Louisville will clinch its first bowl spot since the 2006 season.
Louisville has made a lot of strides this year under first-year coach Charlie Strong. That much is undeniable. But unless the Cardinals can win at Rutgers on Friday, their season will end the same way it has the previous three years: at home without a bowl.

[+] EnlargeJustin Burke
AP Photo/Kevin RivoliJustin Burke will make his fourth straight start at quarterback Friday.
"Going to a bowl game would say we're taking major steps in trying to get this program back in the right direction," Strong said.

Of course, not many people projected that Louisville would make a postseason game this year. But if the 5-6 team fails to get there now, it would feel like a disappointment. The Cardinals were 5-4 after beating Syracuse two weeks ago, but since then they've dropped two straight games at home, including an overtime loss to South Florida in a game they led 14-3.

The pressure, then, is on. Strong called it "a one-game playoff." But he's trying not to put a burden on his players.

"What we have to do is prepare our guys," he said. "If we prepare our guys the right way, they'll feel no pressure."

Louisville has been in this situation before. Two years ago, it went to Piscataway with the same record, needing a win for bowl eligibility. It left with a humiliating 63-14 loss. Rutgers led 49-0 at halftime in perhaps the lowest of the many low points in the Steve Kragthorpe era.

That Scarlet Knights team, though, was on a roll late in the season. This one has lost four straight and is coming off its own embarrassing defeat, a 69-38 thrashing at Cincinnati on Saturday. By comparison, the Cardinals have far fewer issues.

One of their glaring issues, however, is revving up a flat offense. That offense produced just three points in last week's 17-10 loss to West Virginia and committed too many mistakes down the stretch in the overtime loss to South Florida.

The attack has become too one-dimensional, as the team has not passed for more than 146 yards in its last four games. Justin Burke will make his fourth straight start at quarterback Friday in place of still-injured Adam Froman. Still, one-dimensional is OK as long as that dimension is really powerful.

"We've got to get back to our bread and butter," Burke said. "We've got to run the football."

Star tailback Bilal Powell came down with the flu bug late last week and had no yards on just four carries against West Virginia. Strong said Powell should be healthy and ready to go Friday.

Getting to a bowl game would be a reward for Louisville's 27-man senior class, which has never experienced the postseason. And with all those players leaving after this season, the 15 extra bowl practices would help Strong get a jump start on preparing younger players to take over in 2011. Mostly, though, a bowl game would be a signal that things really have changed.

"It would put some hope back into this program," Strong said.

Mountaineers need knockout blow

November, 20, 2010
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The way West Virginia's defense is playing, a 17-10 Mountaineers lead heading into the fourth quarter might be enough.

Still, they're letting Louisville hang around, which is always dangerous. West Virginia has lacked that killer instinct much of the year, and it really needs to land a knockout blow to make sure the Cardinals don't get back in this thing with one big play.

Credit Louisville's defense, which has done a good job all day of bottling up the Mountaineers running game. But it is only the second-best defense on the field.

West Virginia came into Saturday with the No. 2 scoring defense in the country, and has only given up three points. There's no openings for Louisville to run, and quarterback Justin Burke is getting hit repeatedly. The Cardinals had just 19 yards of offense in the third quarter and only 117 for the game.

That's truly dominant stuff, as it has been all season for West Virginia's defense. Now the offense just needs to lend a hand and put up another score to make this lead safe.

West Virginia-Louisville kickoff notes

November, 20, 2010
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Justin Burke will start at quarterback for Louisville. Adam Froman warmed up but had a noticeable limp, and Burke took the snaps with the first-team offense in pregame.

West Virginia officials say Noel Devine had a great week of practices and looks as healthy as he has been since the LSU game. Let's see if he can have a breakout game.

The crowd is still very slow to trickle in here with only about 15 minutes before kickoff and Senior Day festivities about to begin. Hope both teams play with more urgency than the fans.

WVU-Louisville pregame ponderables

November, 20, 2010
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Greetings from Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, where it's a splendid fall day. Temperatures are expected to reach into the 60s under partly sunny skies.

It's Senior Day for Louisville, and this large class of 27 seniors has never experienced a bowl game. They can change that with a win over West Virginia, which would be the Cardinals' sixth of the season. These seniors have been vitally important to this year's improvement, from Bilal Powell to four starting offensive linemen, to quarterbacks Adam Froman and Justin Burke and on and on and on.

Speaking of quarterbacks, there's no word yet on who will start for Louisville, but Froman is in uniform and warming up, with a heavy wrap on his injured left leg.

This is a key game for West Virginia in the Big East race. The Mountaineers need to win out and get some help to take the league title. If they don't, the heat will rise to a stifling degree for head coach Bill Stewart. Fan disappointment is evident in the fact that the Mountaineers returned a large portion of their allotment to this game, unheard of for a late-season trip so close to Morgantown.

The game is officially a sellout, but parking lots were pretty empty less than two hours before the game. It could be a late arriving crowd. After all, it is basketball season here.
Losing a starting quarterback in the middle of the season is never easy. But Louisville had a nice backup plan when Adam Froman went down.

The Cardinals enjoyed the luxury of having another fifth-year senior and former starter on the bench and ready to go. Justin Burke has started the past two games and has thrown five touchdown passes against just one interception.

[+] EnlargeJustin Burke
AP Photo/Kevin RivoliJustin Burke may get the start against West Virginia if Adam Froman misses another game due to injury.
"It's pretty rare to have two five-year guys," Burke said.

Froman, who had been on crutches for two weeks while dealing with a deep thigh bruise, was back at practice Wednesday night, though he walked off the field with a noticeable limp. His official status for Saturday's West Virginia game won't be known until the Big East injury report is updated Thursday night.

But if Froman is sidelined again, the Cardinals feel comfortable with Burke, who started the first three games of last season before getting hurt. Though Burke hasn't thrown for more than 150 yards in either of the last two weeks, head coach Charlie Strong says he has done a good job of "coming in and just managing the offense."

Credit Burke for staying ready and focused. Given all he's been through, it would have been easy for him to have checked out mentally already.

The former Kentucky player of the year began his career at NC State but transferred to Louisville when it became clear he wouldn't start for the Wolfpack. He lost his job to Froman last year after the injury, then was beaten out in the summer for the starting duty this season. Burke has already graduated and is working on his MBA, and some nights he has to sprint out of practice a few minutes early to make it to class. But he has managed to stay sharp and supportive.

"I think I've grown a lot in the last five years, just figuring out what motivates me and how to bounce back from adversity," he said. "I'm a much wiser person.

"I handled not getting the starting job well this year. Last year, I wasn't very mature about it after the injury. But being able to deal with the ebbs and flows and ups and downs of the last five years has made me much stronger."

Burke might not have had the career he once envisioned. But he has already helped his team win a conference road game this season (at Syracuse), and he may be called on to start again as Louisville seeks a sixth victory so it can go to a bowl for the first time in four years.

"I want to put myself and the team in position to win," he said. "That's what I take pride in."
Louisville leads South Florida 14-10 at the half, but it would be worse if not for a spectacular kick return by Lindsey Lamar.

Lamar returned a kickoff 100 yards late in the half. It wasn't one of those returns where the guy makes one move and sprints all the way home untouched. Lamar had to weave his way in and out of traffic and follow his blockers.

That easily has to qualify as the best play of the half by anyone with a ball in his hands for the Bulls. USF has only 70 total yards and just 18 yards passing from B.J. Daniels. If not for Lamar's play and a shanked punt from the Louisville end zone by Chris Philpott that led to a field goal, the Bulls would probably be getting shut out.

The Cardinals have to be concerned that they're not leading by more given how well the defense has played. But if they can keep shutting down Daniels and the Bulls they should be on their way to bowl eligibility. Justin Burke is playing well for the second straight week in place of Adam Froman, tossing two touchdown passes in the first half. Bilal Powell has been limited to 31 yards so far on his return from injury, but the Louisville offense has more than twice as many yards as USF.

Louisville defense controlling USF

November, 13, 2010
Louisville has star running back Bilal Powell in the lineup but is starting quarterback Justin Burke over the injured Adam Froman for the second straight week.

The story after one quarter, though, is the Cardinals' defense. South Florida has had four possessions, ending in three punts and one fumble as Darius Ashley sacked then stripped quarterback B.J. Daniels. That led to a touchdown pass from Burke to Andrell Smith for a 7-0 lead.

South Florida had only 26 total yards in the first half, and Daniels had just 2 passing yards. The Bulls had looked better on offense the past two games, but Louisville's defense is playing with a lot of confidence and energy right now. So far, Papa John's Cardinal Stadium remains a house of horrors for USF.

Bilal Powell practices, Froman does not

November, 11, 2010
Louisville star running back Bilal Powell returned to practice Wednesday night for the first time since sustaining a knee injury against Pittsburgh on Oct. 30, according to The Courier-Journal.

Powell, who leads the Big East with 1,067 rushing yards, didn't play in last week's win at Syracuse. His status for Saturday's game against South Florida is still unknown.

Meanwhile, quarterback Adam Froman is not practicing and was still on crutches Wednesday night with a deep thigh bruise, the paper reported. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that if a quarterback is on crutches Wednesday, he's probably not playing on Saturday. Senior Justin Burke started against Syracuse and looks likely to do so again against the Bulls.

Week 10 review/Week 11 preview

November, 8, 2010
A look back at the week that was in the Big East, which offered a pretty small sample size:

Team of the week: Louisville. The Cardinals stopped an 11-game losing streak in conference road games and stopped Syracuse's momentum with a 28-20 victory in the Carrier Dome. That puts them one win away from making their first bowl game since the 2006 season.

[+] EnlargeBJ Daniels
AP Photo/Mike CarlsonB.J. Daniels and South Florida pulled out a crucial win against Rutgers.
Game of the week: Only two games in Week 10, and both were close. I'll choose South Florida's 28-27 win against Rutgers for the razor-thin margin. I expect a lot more close games the rest of the way in this very balanced league.

Biggest play: Keith McCaskill's tackle of Rutgers' Kordell Young on a screen pass in the end zone for a South Florida safety late in the third quarter. The Bulls made two great defensive plays before that to back the Scarlet Knights into deep trouble, then McCaskill made a perfect read for a score that turned out to be crucial.

Best call: I loved seeing Charlie Strong go for it on 4th-and-1 from his own 39 late in the Syracuse win. He knew Louisville's offensive line had dominated all day and was good enough to pick up the first down, which it did on a Justin Burke sneak. That also forced the Orange to burn their last timeout and helped salt away the game. On the road in that spot, Strong showed great confidence in his players, and they delivered.

Big Man on Campus (Offense): Jeremy Wright, RB, Louisville. With Bilal Powell out of action, the redshirt freshman Wright picked up the slack with 19 carries for 98 yards and two touchdowns.

Big Man on Campus (Defense): Jacquain Williams, LB, South Florida. The senior had 11 tackles and 1.5 sacks in the Bulls' win. His sack of Chas Dodd on fourth down from the USF 41 effectively ended the game.

Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Rutgers' Mason Robinson returned a punt 60-yards for a touchdown Wednesday night. Speaking of which ...

Strangest moment: How about that punt return? Robinson was surrounded by six Bulls' defenders when he caught the ball, but all of them apparently thought he would signal for a fair catch given the circumstances. But Robinson boldly fielded it and then ran in untouched for the score. Skip Holtz called it "the craziest punt return I've ever seen in all my days of coaching."

Worst hangover: Syracuse. For the second time, the Orange disappointed a home crowd eager to embrace them. More distressingly, they failed to clinch bowl eligibility. They still have three chances to do so, but each missed opportunity will only increase the pressure on the team to get the postseason monkey off its back.

Now let's take a look ahead to Week 11, when all eight teams are back in action (Games are listed in descending order of interest/importance):

Pittsburgh (5-3, 3-0 Big East) at Connecticut (4-4, 1-2): The league-leading Panthers try to keep their two-game cushion against a Huskies team that has yet to lose this year at Rentschler Field. (ESPN, Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET)

South Florida (5-3, 2-2) at Louisville (5-4, 2-2): Two teams on the rise under first-year coaches. The Bulls have never won in Louisville. (ESPNU, Noon, ET)

Cincinnati (3-5, 1-2) at West Virginia (5-3, 1-2): The Bearcats have won two straight in this series, and West Virginia wants revenge, though the Mountaineers should be more concerned with themselves at this point (, Noon ET)

Syracuse (6-3, 3-2) at Rutgers (4-4, 1-2): The Orange turnaround began with a blowout win against Rutgers last year. Don't think the Scarlet Knights have forgotten that one. (ESPNU, 3:30 p.m. ET)

Louisville keeps Syracuse bowl hungry

November, 6, 2010
Syracuse has gained a lot of attention in the Big East and nationally for its turnaround and march toward bowl eligibility. Doug Marrone has earned praise and consideration for coach of the year honors.

Well, don't forget about Louisville and Charlie Strong. The Cardinals showed they're awfully improved, too, by beating Syracuse 28-20 in the Carrier Dome on Saturday.

And speaking of coaching jobs ... Strong and his staff got this victory despite playing without star tailback Bilal Powell and starting quarterback Adam Froman, who both missed the game with injuries. Yet the Cardinals controlled the action in the trenches, particularly in the second half when they held the Orange to just a field goal while consistently moving the ball with their running game.

Redshirt freshman Jeremy Wright helped make up for the loss of Powell by running 19 times for 98 yards and two touchdowns, all career highs. Justin Burke, a senior who had thrown just seven passes this year, was 13-of-25 for 143 yards and two touchdowns. Burke's numbers aren't dazzling, but he made some really smart decisions in avoiding pressure and keeping plays alive for positive yardage. Most importantly, he avoided key mistakes.

The Cardinals got it done against the second-best defense in the Big East, one that had allowed only 21 points total in its previous two games.

Syracuse had only 52 yards of offense in the second half and couldn't do much of anything against the defense led by Strong and coordinator Vance Bedford. The big play came early in the second half, when Ryan Nassib found Alec Lemon just in front of the goal line, completely open. The ball hit Lemon in the chest -- and he dropped it. The Orange had to settle for a field goal.

Still, they probably wouldn't have done enough to win this game, especially the way Louisville was tackling and hitting in that second half. Syracuse had been winning with its defense, but had to taste its own medicine Saturday.

Louisville stopped an 11-game conference road losing streak that dated back more than three years. Now at 5-4 and 2-2 in the Big East, the Cardinals are in good shape to make a bowl game for the first time since the 2007 Orange Bowl. They have exceeded last year's win total, and Strong should get some consideration for Big East coach of the year along with Marrone.

The Orange (6-3, 3-2) had hoped to get their seventh win and clinch a bowl berth for the first time since 2004 (they need seven wins because of two victories against FCS opponents). They'll have to wait for that, and I still think they'll get there. But this really hurts their chances of winning the league, and it continues the strange pattern of poor defensive play at home.

Syracuse has allowed 73 points in two Big East games at the Carrier Dome, but only 30 in three games on the road. Perhaps the school can petition to play the rest of its games on the road, because this is the second straight time it has disappointed an energized home fan base with a loss at the Dome.

The big winner this weekend: Pittsburgh. The Panthers didn't play, but they're 3-0 in the league while everyone else has at least two conference losses.

Syracuse leads Louisville at half

November, 6, 2010
Syracuse leads Louisville 17-14 after an entertaining and surprisingly high-scoring first half.

The Cardinals led 14-7 late in the first quarter, but the Orange made some nice adjustments to the Louisville defensive pressure in the second quarter. Louisville was getting to Ryan Nassib with a lot of blitzing up the middle, but Syracuse finally started picking it up and pounded the ball on the ground in a 12-play, 70-yard touchdown drive.

And it was pressure by the Orange that led to the go-ahead score. Defensive end Mikhail Marinovich came in unblocked and drilled quarterback Justin Burke, knocking the ball free near the Louisville 20 late in the half. Syracuse cashed in with a short field goal.

As Doug Marrone said this week, these teams are evenly matched. Syracuse has done a great job of slowing down the Big East's best rushing offense as Louisville tailbacks have produced 56 yards on 10 carries in the half. Of course, it hurts that Bilal Powell isn't playing.

The Orange found some running room of their own in the second quarter, and Delone Carter already has 78 yards.

Both teams are playing a physical style and applying lots of pressure defensively, which could lead to some big plays in the second half. Syracuse is 30 minutes away from clinching its first bowl bid since 2004.