Cardinals trying to stay grounded

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
It's nothing new for football coaches to build up the opposition. Lou Holtz used to make every team Notre Dame was about to play sound like the 1986 Chicago Bears. Still, more than a few eyebrows raised at Steve Kragthorpe's effusive praise of Syracuse on Monday.

The Louisville coach at various points referred to the Orange as "an excellent team" that is "dynamic on offense," adding that he was "impressed with what they're doing" and that coach Greg Robinson "is doing a good job."

Sure, Syracuse has given solid effort in recent weeks and competed well against West Virginia and for a half each versus South Florida and Pittsburgh. But if the 1-6 Orange are "excellent," their 17.7 points-per-game offense is "dynamic" and Robinson's 8-34 record represents "doing a good job," well, we'd hate to see the opposites of those attributes in Kragthorpe's mind.

Yet it's hard to blame Kragthorpe for being so generous about this week's opponent. Louisville, after all, is the only Big East team that lost to Syracuse last season and one of only two league teams Robinson has ever beaten. The Cardinals were a 36.5-point favorite when they fell at home 38-35 last September, which at the time was believed to be the largest point-spread upset in college football history. It was the most embarrassing defeat in a season of humbling setbacks during Kragthorpe's first year.

Even the Cardinals' 2006 Orange Bowl championship team struggled against Syracuse before pulling out a 28-13 win at the Carrier Dome that season. So if any team is going to avoid taking the Orange lightly, it should be Louisville this week.

This is also a much better team, especially defensively, than the one that let Syracuse score on a long touchdown by an uncovered receiver to start last year's game. New defensive coordinator Ron English has overseen a radical makeover of the unit, infused by some junior-college transfers at linebacker and more energy by the returnees. Louisville ranks 31st in the nation in total defense and is fifth best against the run, allowing just 75 yards per game on the ground. Its defensive line dominated South Florida in last week's 24-20 victory at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.

"I think as a defense we've surprised a lot of people," freshman linebacker Dexter Heyman said. "You could tell we had a lot of people out of position last year. I attribute it all to coach English. He brought us new fire, new enthusiasm, new techniques and new philosophies. We all love playing for him."

Kragthorpe mostly inherited a defensive staff left over from the Bobby Petrino era, including defensive coordinator Mike Cassity. That never meshed well, and Kragthorpe brought in new coaches for every defensive position in the offseason.

"Those are difficult decisions you have to make, but when you sit in this chair those are the decisions that have to make," he said. "And I just felt like it was in the best interests of the program to do that.

"Obviously, our defense is playing extremely well in relation to where we were at coming out of last season. I like the fact we're flying around, we're creating turnovers, we're knocking down the run."

The Cardinals are 5-2 and 1-1 in the league now, ahead of where most people thought they'd be at this time. If the voting were held today, Kragthorpe would have to be considered one of the favorites for Big East coach of the year.

But nothing is determined after seven games, even following what was the Cardinals' biggest win under Kragthorpe.

"It's only big if we can continue to win," he said. "The next five games are championship run now. Every week is a championship game."

That run begins with Syracuse on Saturday. The Cardinals shouldn't need false praise to avoid overlooking the Orange again.