LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Louisville has shown it can start fast and win with late-game heroics.
The No. 16 Cardinals (7-0, 2-0 Big East Conference) now want to eliminate all those mid-game letdowns in between.
That has been difficult for Louisville, which has found ways to remain undefeated. But there's no room for error Friday night against Cincinnati (5-1, 1-0), which enters with the league's best offense and a four-game winning streak against Louisville.
The winner keeps pace with undefeated, first-place Rutgers in the Big East and claims bragging rights that come with the Keg of Nails trophy.
"It (the rivalry) feels bigger now because we're both undefeated in the conference," said Louisville senior linebacker Preston Brown, a Cincinnati native. "They've beaten us the last few times, so we're trying to get the win this time."
Last year's 25-16 loss at Cincinnati marked a turning point for Louisville, which rebounded from the setback to claim a share of the Big East title with the Bearcats and West Virginia. The Cardinals have won 12 of 13 regular season games since and can post their first 8-0 record in 87 years.
Nothing has come easy during this surge, and Louisville came within 95 seconds of joining Cincinnati in the one-loss club last Saturday against South Florida. Leading 14-3 at halftime, the Cardinals allowed the Bulls to rally and take a four-point lead before quarterback Teddy Bridgewater responded with a game-winning touchdown drive in the 27-25 victory.
That symbolized a season-long habit the Cardinals are desperate to break.
"We have to improve, we know this," Louisville coach Charlie Strong said. "We have to improve on defense; we have to improve on offense; we have to improve on special teams.
"We're getting to ready to hit a stretch where we're playing some outstanding teams in the conference, so we have to get better ourselves."
Louisville stands well in several Big East offensive categories, ranking second in scoring (32.4 points per game), fourth in total offense (405.6 yards), and third in rushing (161.4).
Bridgewater (1,694 yards, 11 TDs), leads the league in passing efficiency (165.2).
"Boy, he can manage their offense," Cincinnati coach Butch Jones said. "Extremely accurate, (he) knows where he's going with the football. Not only can he beat you by throwing the football, he can beat you by running the football."
Bearcats quarterback Munchie Legaux is also impressed — almost as much as he is with his own play. Legaux praised Bridgewater's efficiency, playmaking ability and leadership. But when asked how similar he is to Bridgewater, the league's fifth-rated passer (136.7) declared with a straight face, "I'm better."
Cardinals nose tackle Brandon Dunn wasn't surprised to hear that.
"They got some players that hate us and we got some players that hate them," he said. "Whatever happens, happens."
Of course, Legaux and the Bearcats already had the Cardinals' attention before that.
While the junior (53.3 percent completion rate) can be cold for long stretches — Toledo returned a Legaux interception 75 yards for a touchdown in last week's 29-23 victory — and then get hot, he has thrown for 1,435 yards and 12 touchdowns. And the Bearcats lead in several offensive areas including scoring (34.7), rushing (225.7) and total offense (467.5).
Senior running back George Winn is second in rushing with 607 yards and a 101.2 average.
"I do feel confident" in Legaux, Jones said. "I think everyone to the naked eye, they always think about the quarterback. And the quarterback is just like the coach, they get more credit when you win and probably more blame when you lose than what's deservedly so.
"We forget we had a touchdown pass dropped in the first quarter that changes the complexion of the game in a hurry. So I think it's everyone doing their job around the quarterback. We're going to see a tremendous amount of pressure, we're going to see a lot of man coverage, and football comes down to winning your 1-on-1 matchups."
The Bearcats will try to move past a loss that knocked them from the ranks of the unbeaten and the rankings without defensive Walter Stewart, who's out with an upper-body injury.
The Cardinals are healthy but eager to break a habit that has put them on the brink of collapse several times before their resilience showed.
Whoever meets their objective still faces a tough road with many Big East games ahead. But it could help determine which one chases down Rutgers next month.
"We still feel like we haven't played up to our abilities," Cardinals linebacker George Durant said. "We have to step up and get better."