Louisville has high hill to climb

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
For most of the year, Louisville's main goal has been just to get back to a bowl game after last season's disappointment. The Cardinals can still achieve their ambition, but they face some daunting challenges.

Saddled with a four-game losing streak -- the program's longest since a 1-10 season in 1997 that cost Ron Cooper his job -- Louisville (5-6) must win at Rutgers on Thursday night just to reach bowl eligibility. Then locating a game would be the next step.

A Rutgers loss means the Big East will lose one of its bowl slots to Notre Dame, and the league would have to find a home for both the Scarlet Knights and the Cardinals at 6-6. They'd both be behind any team in the country that had at least seven wins. Louisville was 6-6 last year and couldn't attract an at-large bid.

"It's certainly conceivable that if we win this game we could be in a bowl game," head coach Steve Kragthorpe said. "The thing we can control is preparing well and going up to Rutgers and winning the football game. Then we'll let the chips fall where they may."

Beating Rutgers is a bigger challenge than what any bowl scenario presents. The Scarlet Knights (6-5) are zooming in the opposite direction from Louisville, having won five in a row. They'll be playing for a guaranteed bowl berth and to send out one of the best senior classes in school history on a positive note.

This also looks like the worst possible matchup for the Cardinals' current state of affairs. Their secondary has been hit hard by injuries, so much so that they will be starting a true freshman (Karldell Dunning) at cornerback and a walk-on (Daniel Covington) at safety.

Somehow those guys will have to slow down the force of nature that is wide receiver Kenny Britt, who leads the nation in receiving yards per game (119.1). During the five-game winning streak, Britt is averaging eight catches and 145 receiving yards per game, with five touchdowns. Rutgers has averaged 38 points its last three contests, and its main offensive weapon is quarterback Mike Teel heaving it deep to Britt.

Sophomore corner Johnny Patrick will probably draw the assignment of trying to contain Britt. Patrick was a wide receiver before he converted to defense in the spring of 2007. He's had some good moments this year, but teams liked to throw to his side before Woodny Turenne (five interceptions) broke his collarbone against Cincinnati.

"He's kind of stepped up and played some smart football for us as a young guy," Kragthorpe said.

Louisville's offense will have to find ways to pierce the Scarlet Knight's hard-hitting defense, which allowed an average of just 12 points in its three November games. Too many times, the Cardinals have been their own worst enemy, backing themselves up with penalties at inopportune moments or giving the ball away. They have 22 turnovers in their six losses and just six giveaways in their five wins.

They'll have to play a much cleaner game to avoid the program's first losing season since 1997 and its first back-to-back bowl-less years since 1996-97. Salvaging this season can still be done. But it won't be easy.