Louisville Makes Strong Statement in Beef O'Brady's Bowl Victory
"We've got to play our balls off."
Back in May when Strong had yet to coach his first game at Louisville, he promised a group of boosters his team would play hard, would be intense and would never quit.
And that, oh yeah, he added: "we've got to play our balls off."
That's exactly what the Cardinals did Tuesday night, rallying from a two-touchdown deficit to defeat Southern Miss, 31-28, in the Beef O'Brady's St. Petersburg Bowl at Tropicana Field.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, Zeke Walters' 8-yard touchdown reception from Austin Davis gave the Golden Eagles a 28-21 lead. USM had dominated the game statistically to that point and now clearly had regained momentum.
That lasted exactly 15 seconds.
That's how long it took Louisville freshman Jeremy Wright to return the ensuing kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown and pull the Cards even.
"We feel like it's our responsibility on special teams to have a game changer," Louisville special teams coach Kenny Carter said.
In Louisville's season finale against Rutgers last month, Carter had gotten on Wright. Carter felt Wright should have had a kickoff return for a touchdown, but "weaved around too much."
This time Wright got it right.
"It was great execution by everyone on special teams," Wright said. "We really needed a big play. I saw our center made a key block on the return and I thought if I could get outside of him and get the ball vertical, I could do what I could do."
Wright did it.
"That was a huge spark," Louisville offensive coordinator Mike Sanford said. "Just a huge emotional lift."
And on UL's next possession, Chris Philpott hit a 36-yard field goal, accounting for the night's final points. If not for Wright's game-changing return, the Cardinals may have been done.
"I'm not sure about that," Wright said. "I don't know what would have happened. I'm just glad everything turned out the way it did."
Wright, a redshirt freshman from Clermont, Fla., had about 30 family members in attendance watching him play in person for the first time since he's been at Louisville. Wright's perfect night was capped off when he was named Louisville's team MVP.
"It was amazing to play in front of all my family," said Wright, who attended Clermont's East Ridge High School. "This couldn't have been any better. I wouldn't change it for the world."
Change, though, is exactly what Strong promised when he took over a Cardinals team that went 4-8 last season. In August, he plastered the weight room with signs that read "Louisville picked to finish last in the Big East."
Those signs were still stuck on the walls when the Cardinals left Louisville for St. Petersburg a few days ago.
"A team that was picked to finish last in the conference, a team that was picked to win no conference games," Strong said. "All season long this team has fought through adversity and never quit. Each game we've gotten better. The 25 seniors decided they would take this program and lay a foundation.
"They learned how to compete. They were picked last and finished 6-6 and got to a bowl game. We were down 14 and showed no quit.
"It was so exciting to see a football team that has come a long way, a football team that truly believes in each other."
Louisville senior quarterback Justin Burke threw for 178 yards and two touchdowns in his final game with the Cardinals. Burke said the magnitude of this win couldn't be understated.
"He (Strong) turned this program around," Burke said. "And this game is important for us seniors, but it's very important for this program. It's a statement game ... that this program is really going to go up."
The difference is the team's belief in Strong.
"That's the stamp that he's put on this program: play hard," Sanford said. "He wants a team that plays hard and that was evident tonight."
Strong said the victory, which gave Louisville (7-6) its first winning season since the 2006 team won the Big East championship, will be huge in continuing to rebuild the program, especially in recruiting.
"It's really big to finish with a winning record," Sanford said. "It shows we're moving forward and the program is moving forward and we're on our way to getting this thing turned around. Like Coach Strong says, 'We expect to compete for the Big East championship and go to a BCS bowl.' That's what our goals are."
Before the game, Strong had a message he emphasized to his team. It was simple and direct.
"I said, 'Just give me 60 minutes, just give these seniors 60 minutes. That's all we need: 60 minutes is all we need. Tomorrow you have all day to rest,' " Strong said. "You can really have a great Christmas. Those presents are fun to open when you win a game."
Wright said Strong has changed the entire atmosphere of not only the program, but the entire fan base.
"Coach Strong really emphasizes being competitive," Wright said. "He says it every week: 'we've got to play our balls off.' We had to come out and get a win for our 25 seniors."
Brett McMurphy is a national college football writer for FanHouse. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and please follow at Twitter.com/BrettmcmurphY