PISCATAWAY, N.J. (AP) — Charlie Strong got something very unexpected in his first season at Louisville – a bowl eligible team and couple of celebratory bucket baths that only made the accomplishment that much sweeter.
Running back Bilal Powell caught two touchdowns and ran for another and Louisville became bowl eligible for the first time in three years with a dominating 40-13 victory over Rutgers on Friday.
“I was just so happy to see that happen today, to see steps taken in this program, when we hadn’t been to a bowl game in that long.” Strong said, still proudly wearing his drenched Louisville sweatshirt. “Even just to get to .500, 6-6; and we’re just so proud of this group of guys.”
The turnaround has been stunning for Louisville (6-6, 3-4 Big East).
Strong replaced Steve Kragthorpe in December and the former longtime Florida defensive coordinator took a team that finished 4-8 the previous year and got them to believe in themselves despite being picked to finish last in the conference.
“I never could have imagined this,” Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich said. “I thought this would be a rebuilding year and this would be his (Strong’s) year to put his stamp on it. He has done all that and more. He gets an A-plus in every category.”
Louisville certainly would get an A-plus for its performance against reeling Rutgers (4-7, 1-5), which lost its fifth straight to guarantee it would not play in a sixth consecutive bowl under coach Greg Schiano.
The Cardinals scored on their first four possessions and never looked back. Powell caught touchdown passes of 17 and 11 yards from Justin Burke on the first two series and he ran for 11 of his 123 yards to cap the third drive.
“This is all we wanted to do this year, to go to a bowl,” said Burke, who was forced the leave the game early in the second quarter with back spasms. “Obviously, we wanted to win every game, but we wanted to go to a bowl and play one more game, especially the seniors. We’ve been through a lot together and there’s 25 of us who will get to play one more game, which is exciting.”
The last time Louisville was bowl eligible was 2007. They weren’t selected for a postseason game. Strong believes they will go somewhere, especially since that’s what he told his team would happen if they won.
“We knew all along the type of team we had,” said backup quarterback Will Stein, who threw his first career TD pass after Burke left. “We just had to put it together for four quarters. Today, we did.”
The loss and the realization that they weren’t going bowling again was bitter for Rutgers, especially in a year where it had to deal with a spinal cord injury to backup defensive tackle Eric LeGrand. The losing streak has coincided with LeGrand’s injury on Oct. 16 against Army, the Scarlet Knights’ last win.
“It hasn’t sunk it yet, I’ll probably feel it a little later,” defensive captain Joe Lefeged said. “It’s hard. Everything we did over the summer, all the hard work we put in, to come up short, we’re very disappointed for the coaching staff, players and seniors. It’s a tough pill to swallow.”
Stein added a 1-yard TD toss to Cameron Graham, running back Jeremy Wright scored on a 64-yard run and Johnny Patrick had a 35-yard interception return for the Cardinals, who had 427 yards of total offense.
Rutgers, which is in last place in the conference, has given up 109 points in the last two games. Jordan Thomas ran 17 yards for a touchdown and Jeremy Deering added a 1-yard run for the Scarlet Knights, who suffered their first losing season since 2004. Quarterback Chas Dodd was sacked nine times in the loss.
Louisville and Rutgers, which has a season-ending game at West Virginia next weekend, each came into the contest knowing it had to win to keep bowl hopes alive. But Louisville – a program hungry for its first bowl since the Orange Bowl after the 2006 season – proved it, while Rutgers was listless, giving up touchdown drives of 75, 64, 75 and 69 yards on the Cardinals’ first four possessions.
“I wouldn’t say that we were emotionally ready, you know,” Rutgers defensive tackle Charlie Noonan said. “The first four drives said it blatantly, that we weren’t ready.”
Burke, who was 9 of 11 for 138 yards, missed his first and last passes. But he hit eight straight on the Cardinals’ first two drives. His completions of 25 to Damian Copeland, and 20 to Andrell Smith, set up the shovel pass to Powell for his first score. Burke hit Smith for 23 and Graham for 16 before hitting Powell coming out of the backfield for a 14-0 lead.
Powell had runs of 6, 15 and 5 yards on the drive he capped with his 11-yard run. The 100-yard rushing game was his seventh of the season, tying a school record previously shared by Frank Moreau (1999) and Walter Peacock (1973).
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