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LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Eighth-ranked Louisville hasn't been challenged, using its first five opponents to prepare for stiffer competition.
It's time to see if that strategy pays off.
On Thursday, the Cardinals (5-0, 1-0 American Athletic Conference) square off against high-scoring Rutgers (4-1, 1-0).
After allowing 34 total points, Louisville's defense must stop a Scarlet Knights offense averaging 40 per game and coming off a 55-52, triple-overtime victory at Southern Methodist. While the Cardinals' offense has shown it can score in bunches, keeping up with Rutgers in a shootout could be tough if leading receiver DeVante Parker can't play because of a right shoulder injury.
Rutgers has been a tough out for Louisville. The last six meetings between the schools have been decided by three points or less, including Louisville's 20-17 win last season.
"It's going to be a good test for us," Louisville coach Charlie Strong said Monday. "If our guys take the time and put in the time and understand just how important this game is, then we'll be on track."
The possibility of playing without Parker should help remind the Cardinals of the urgency they face against the Scarlet Knights.
Strong wasn't specific about the severity of Parker's first-quarter injury in Saturday's 30-7 victory at Temple that ended his consecutive-games streak with a touchdown at 10. The junior leads the team with 21 receptions for 375 yards and six touchdowns.
Parker's possible absence could mean the Cardinals will play the Scarlet Knights without a key player for the second straight year. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was sidelined for the first half of last November's showdown in New Jersey with a broken wrist and sore ankle. He came off the bench to throw two second-half touchdown passes in a victory that clinched the Big East Conference championship and a BCS bowl bid.
Louisville is fortunate that its receiver corps is one of the team's deepest units and that Bridgewater has worked many of them, along with his tailbacks, into the mix. The junior has completed passes to at least seven receivers in every game this season including 10 targets with multiple catches against Temple.
Still, the scenario of Bridgewater without his go-to guy is significant for a team that likes to strike quickly and regularly with the deep ball. At the same time, Strong expressed confidence that senior Damian Copeland (264 yards, 3 TDs), junior slot receiver Eli Rogers (279, 2 TDs), junior tight end Gerald Christian (3 TDs) and many others can stretch the field and score points in Parker's absence.
"We have enough receivers, we just don't have the big-play ability like (Parker), where you get in the red zone and the ball is thrown up," the coach said. "But we have enough receivers where we can put guys in place and let 'em go play. ...
"Other guys have got to step up, that's what happens."
Strong noted how Louisville has built the nation's top scoring defense (6.8 points per game) despite missing a few regulars as an example of the team's ability to overcome injuries. He's hoping they can maintain the momentum against Rutgers' high-scoring offense, which is no easy feat.
The Scarlet Knights are coming off their second 50-point effort and overtime game this season. Rutgers lost its opener 52-51 at Fresno State.
Between those extended games came the Scarlet Knights' signature win, 28-24 over Southeastern Conference opponent Arkansas in which they rallied from a 24-7 second-half deficit with a 58-yard punt return for a touchdown and two fourth-quarter TD passes by junior quarterback Gary Nova, whose 13 TDs are second in the AAC to Bridgewater's 16.
Strong said he's not paying attention to Louisville's ranking — the Cardinals fell another spot this week — or perceptions about their schedule. He's focused on getting his team past Rutgers and showing they can handle quality teams as well as overmatched ones.
Said Strong, "this team matches up very well with us."