It was just his second year at Louisville, but Charlie Strong surely had high expectations for his Cardinals in 2011.
With a full season under his belt, Strong had already had the chance to instill his values and hard-nosed playing style in a program that included several talented athletes, including quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and safety Calvin Pryor, who both went on to be first round picks in this year’s NFL draft.
As expected, the Cardinals beat Murray State, an FCS team, in the season opener in 2011, but the 21-7 victory was less than convincing and proved to be an indication of what was to come. Louisville went on to drop four of its next five games, all by nine points or fewer and found itself at 2-4 by the season’s midway point.
Three years later, now in his first season at Texas, the script looks awfully familiar for Strong and his staff, many of whom were with him at Louisville.
Strong hasn’t had as much time with the Longhorns as he did with the Cardinals, but the rough start to his inaugural season in Austin is eerily similar to the one he had in his second year at Louisville.
Texas opened this season with what appeared to be a convincing win over North Texas but, in hindsight, was likely just the result of the Longhorns taking advantage of a particularly weak Mean Green opponent.
Since then, Strong’s team has lost four of five games, with its lone victory coming against Kansas, another feeble foe. The losses, however, have come against some of the top teams in the nation, and Texas has hung around for at least the first two quarters in each of its losses.
“I just don’t think [our record] represents who we are,” senior running back Malcolm Brown said. “We’ve definitely been growing the past couple of weeks and just came up short on those losses that we’ve taken.”
For Strong’s 2011 Cardinals team, the halfway point proved also to be the turning point. After the rough start, Louisville bounced back with wins over Rutgers and Syracuse before a statement victory over West Virginia, which was a ranked team at the time.
“We were going to West Virginia, not knowing if we even had a chance,” Strong said. “That’s when they had quarterback Geno [Smith] and the receivers. Then we end up going up there and beating them, and that gave us some juice.”
With Bridgewater at the helm, the Cardinals went on to win two of their final three games after beating the Mountaineers and finished the regular season 7-5 — good enough to gain bowl eligibility.
Sophomore quarterback Tyrone Swoopes is no Bridgewater, but his performance last Saturday against Oklahoma proved he is capable of leading this team to an equally strong finish this season.
A win at home against a struggling Iowa State team this weekend would give the Longhorns some momentum heading into next week’s matchup with Kansas State — one that could provide Texas with a season-changing victory much like Louisville’s win over West Virginia three years ago.
However, that’s all speculative. What is known is that Texas’ first six games have been virtually identical to that of the 2011 Louisville team. Now, it’s up to Strong, his staff and the players, to try and duplicate the second half as well.