Of the three new hires in 2010, the least was expected of Louisville head coach Charlie Strong. Not because Strong wasn't perceived as a good coach himself or that he hadn't surrounded himself with good coaches, but, because he was walking into a program that had missed the postseason for three consecutive seasons and had drawn just 45,000 people to its final two home games of the 2009 season. With such low expectations and such little on hand to work with, Strong and company delivered on the promise he made in his opening press conference to reward the senior that had struggled through the Kragthorpe years by getting them to a bowl game. Louisville's 7-6 final record isn't earth shattering, but, when viewed against the bleak circumstances coming into the season, Charlie Strong did an excellent job in year one.
Wins and Losses
The Cardinals of 2010 were vastly improved in the win/loss column. After posting a 4-8 record in 2009, with just one win in Big East play, Louisville improved to 6-6 in the regular season and won the Beef O'Brady's Bowl over a decent Southern Miss team to finish 7-6. The 6-6 regular season record belies how improved the team was. The Cardinals lost by 8 or fewer points in five of their six losses. They improved in conference play as well, jumping from 1-7 to 3-4 in the Big East and won their first conference road game since 2007 when they went on the road and beat Syracuse. The Cardinals recorded their first Big East shutout ever when they defeated the eventual Big East champion 26-0.
As might be expected from a team whose head coach was a career defensive coordinator, Louisville show dramatic improvement in virtually every defensive statistical category. After giving up 200+ yards rushing to Kentucky in the season opener, the Cardinals defense began to come alive and by year's end was clearly the Big East's second best defensive unit behind West Virginia. Nationally, the Cardinals finished 2010 ranked 14th in total defense, 9th in passing defense, 7th in sacks, and 18th in scoring defense while allowing almost 60 fewer yards per game. All significant improvements over 2009. Offensively the Cardinals were actually marginally lower in passing statistics but improved overall offensive production by a vastly improved rushing offense. Additionally, Louisville improved from -3 to +3 in turnover margin.
Charlie Strong said it and the season results bear it out: the loss on the road against a quality Oregon State team that was still healthy at the time was the turning point in the season. After a disheartening loss to rival Kentucky in the opener and an absolutely boring and embarassing 23-13 win over FCS Eastern Kentucky, the Cardinals traveled west to Corvallis in what looked to be a complete mismatch. Instead, the Cardinals lost the game 35-28 despite outgaining Oregon State and would have won the game were it not for two red zone turnovers early in the first quarter. The loss seemed to instill confidence in the team that they could play with good teams and after that, the Cardinals finished the season 5-4 and were competitive with everyone but Pitt.
If He Had It to Do Over Again
Strong says he wouldn't change his mind, and even texted the entire team to tell them he wouldn't change it, but, deep down I believe if he could do it over again, he would not have gone for it on fourth and inches against South Florida in overtime. The Bulls had manufactured points in the kick return game and one long pass, but hadn't moved the ball consistently and had Louisville at least kicked the field goal, could have played defense to try and force another overtime. Instead the Cardinals were stopped and USF won the game on its field goal. In the end, it didn't change much for Louisville, but it did give South Florida its first win ever in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium and helped it avoid the typical November slide.
Charlie Strong only finished 6-6, but, he likely made the very best of what was a terrible situation. Strong put together a very good recruiting class by February 2010, and many of them contributed right away. Strong got Bilal Powell to get into the shape and become one of the nation's best running backs. After a slow start, the team developed a strong (no pun intended0 defense and gradually took on the personality of its coach. They accomplished new things in shutting out conference opponents and won road games for the first time since 2006. Strong finished the improvement on the field by landing an even better recruiting class in February. The stage is set for him to once again make Louisville a Big East contender in the Big East.