Undaunted, USF readies for challenge of Louisville

Early edition

Published November 15, 2006

TAMPA — You could start with the “trouble winning on the road” thing. And the “trouble winning when it’s cold” thing.

And in playing at No. 10 Louisville (8-1, 3-1) on Saturday, USF is returning to the scene of its most lopsided loss in the past four seasons.

Against a team that  it destroyed 45-14 last year in the Big East debut for both teams. Oh, and the Bulls get to test Louisville’s 16-game home winning streak immediately after the Cardinals’ hopes of playing for a national title were dashed on national television.

Try to tune all of that out, and you get a sense of the challenge awaiting the Bulls (7-3, 3-2).  Freshman quarterback Matt Grothe, preparing for likely the most hostile reception of his young Bulls career, says bring it on.

“I like playing on the road better than I like playing at home, actually,” Grothe said. “That’s just me. I like going there and getting booed, and then you make a big play and you can hear a pin drop. I like hearing that. Hopefully we can hear that a lot this Saturday.”

Grothe has never been to Louisville, but his older teammates remember their last trip, a 41-9 drubbing in which the Bulls totaled 40 yards of first-half offense, trailing 27-3.

“The only thing I remember was hearing, 'Another Cardinals first down!’ They said that every time,” cornerback Mike Jenkins said. “They have a lot of fan support, and it’s loud. They get a lot of energy from their fans.”

Lose Saturday, and Jenkins will hear about it from more than Louisville’s fans. He has traded verbal jabs this week with Cardinals linebacker Abe Brown, a teammate and friend from Bradenton Southeast. In their two meetings, each has won big in his home stadium, and Jenkins’ challenge is to change that.

“He told me they’re trying to get us back, do us like they did us a few years ago,” he said. “We’re going back and forth, and I expect more of that.”

And then there’s the cold. Last year’s most disappointing loss came on a frigid trip to Connecticut. The Bulls’ worst performance this season was in a chilly night game in the mid 40s last month at Cincinnati. Saturday night’s low in Louisville is projected at 33 degrees.

On top of the cold and the crowd, Louisville has Division I-A’s No. 2 offense, averaging 467 yards. Defense? Only Rutgers and Michigan average more sacks than the Cardinals.

Facing Louisville’s Brian Brohm, one of the nation’s top quarterbacks, the Bulls have confidence after facing Pittsburgh’s Tyler Palko two weeks ago, holding him to a season-low 159 yards and intercepting him three times.

“These are the guys that the media, all the sports analysts, say are the best quarterbacks,” linebacker Patrick St. Louis said. “You want to prove yourself against them, to see if it’s really true. It’s your way of proving to the world that you can play with them on that level.”

Louisville hasn’t lost at home since 2003, the same year that USF saw a 21-game home winning streak end. Bulls coach Jim Leavitt, whose team went 5-1 at home this season, said a dominant home field is difficult to overcome.

“To build a great program, you want to be strong at home,” Leavitt said. “We all know it’s a challenge. There’s not any question about that.”

USF still has confidence from last year’s Louisville game, the signature win in the program’s history. The Bulls, three-touchdown underdogs, dominated the then-No. 9 Cardinals, drawing national headlines.

If there’s a lesson to learn from that game, it’s the power of a strong start. USF led 21-0 four minutes into the second quarter, and any kind of early burst can quiet a crowd.

“We definitely need to start strong,” receiver Taurus Johnson said. “If we start out quick and fast, come out every drive scoring, then Louisville should fold. The crowd won’t be an issue at all.”

Greg Auman can be reached at auman@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3346. View his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf/.