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LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Louisville coach Charlie Strong is stressing equal contributions from his offense and defense for 60 minutes when the eighth-ranked Cardinals host Central Florida on Friday night.
Strong knows his defense can pick up the slack if the offense struggles. The defense showed how capable it is in last week's 24-10 win over Rutgers. With Louisville (6-0, 2-0 American Athletic Conference) struggling to move the ball, Cardinals defenders responded with eight sacks and four interceptions — with the last pickoff setting up the late clinching touchdown.
Still, the coach makes it clear that both units must play well to avoid being upset by UCF (4-1, 1-0). The Knights are 3-0 on the road including an upset of Penn State and played 11th-ranked South Carolina tough before losing 28-25.
"Our work's cut out for us," Strong said Monday. "We're going to have to play very well and that's what we want to do, improve each and every week."
This time, though, the coach is challenging them to prove it from start to finish in their second consecutive prime-time appearance.
Strong said he wasn't concerned that junior quarterback Teddy Bridgewater didn't play his usual precise game before a national TV audience and 26 NFL scouts from 20 teams. Despite completing 21 of 31 passes for 310 yards and two touchdowns, he appeared somewhat off in overthrowing receivers and tossing an end zone interception.
Bridgewater also fumbled during a fourth-quarter sack that gave Rutgers an opening, but Strong dismissed the idea that he was pressing to impress the scouts and boost his Heisman Trophy prospects.
"I don't think Teddy gets rattled with that," the coach said. "He didn't make some throws, but I guess every time he goes out we expect him to be perfect and he's not going to be perfect. People do have bad games.
"We have raised the standard and he plays up to what we want him to play at. ... We won the football game."
Most encouraging for Louisville is the dominant play by its defense that remains No. 1 in scoring at 7.3 points allowed per game. The Cardinals have a tough act to follow after holding Rutgers to just 240 yards and coming up big at key moments such as the fourth quarter, when Calvin Pryor and Terell Floyd intercepted passes on consecutive possessions to seal the game.
But compared to a year ago when the perception was Louisville had to score big to offset defensive weaknesses, Friday showed how far the Cardinals have come with another season of experience.
"These guys were young when they started and now they're grown up," Strong said. "All the guys play off one another and they don't care who gets the glory. They're happy to see one another get it done."
Tense as the Rutgers game was for Louisville, Strong saw enough positives on both sides of the ball that he believes the Cardinals are capable of putting it together against UCF. The offense still gained 461 yards despite missing top receiver DeVante Parker with a shoulder injury and losing wideout Kai De La Cruz with a groin injury. Both are game-time decisions for the Knights.
Louisville's defense certainly didn't bend against Rutgers, responding with one of its stiffest performances of the season in a league game. The challenge now is blending both facets to halt a Knights team that hasn't flinched against a tough schedule or from falling behind.
UCF is led by quarterback Blake Bortles, who has completed nearly 65 percent of his passes for 1,334 yards and nine touchdowns. Storm Johnson has rushed for 455 yards and seven TDs.
Figure in a Knights defense holding opponents to 353 yards per game and Strong sees an opportunity for Louisville to prove it's up to the task, just needing to follow through for four quarters.
"What's happening this season is all three phases are playing together," he said. "Even if one phase isn't playing together, the other phases can pick it up and that's what's great about it. We're six games into it and want to continue to get better."