After nine games, the Louisville Cardinals were reaching historic heights.
But one trip to Syracuse punctured all of the euphoria.
Louisville, which hosts UConn on Saturday, turned in an awful performance in a 45-26 loss to Syracuse Nov. 10. The team that was 9-0 for the first time in program history was flattened, allowing 524 yards. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, the best offensive player in the Big East this season, couldn't do enough to overcome his team's poor defense, and coach Charlie Strong was left to pick up the pieces.
Two weeks later, Strong is leading his team back to the field after a bye week. And the loss seems to be in his rearview mirror.
"There are bigger goals yet to be met for this football program," Strong said. "One setback, we can't turn it into frustration, excuse-making or poor individual habits. We always have to look at what you have left and never look at what you lost."
For Louisville (9-1, 4-1), the road to a conference title and a BCS bowl berth is clear: It must beat UConn and end the season with a win at conference-leading Rutgers (9-0, 5-0).
"We're still 9-1 at the end of the day," Strong said. "That one game is not going to define our season. We still have two games left to play, we're still in control of our destiny, so it's all about us continuing to go to work and make sure we don't lose our confidence and continue to focus and execute. It's a two-game season."
Regardless of how Louisville finishes, it has already been a transformative season for the program. Strong, in his third season, has emerged as a popular name in the college coaching circuit and figures to be a target for some marquee jobs (Tennessee?). Bridgewater, a sophomore, has passed for 2,858 yards and 21 touchdowns, inching into this year's Heisman Trophy conversation while solidifying himself as a definite 2013 candidate.
And as Louisville has climbed in the national rankings, the program is acting as a selling point for the school's pitch to the Atlantic Coast Conference. Saturday's game, in fact, will be viewed as something of an audition for the ACC as Louisville faces the school considered the favorite to replace Maryland.
Strong, echoing what most coaches are saying, insists he's leaving the conference chatter to his administration. But he's confident in the future of his program.
"We are in a great position," he said this week. "We have great facilities, We have a great AD [Tom Jurich]. … At some point, somebody is going to turn around and look at Louisville and say, 'Look at what they are doing.' Or maybe they are afraid to let us come in [because] of what we're doing."