Louisville can't afford to look ahead

If Louisville looks ahead to its big game against Kentucky next week, then the Cardinals might miss FIU and its terrific all-purpose player T.Y. Hilton.

And if they miss him, they will be in some serious trouble.

Simply put, the Cardinals cannot afford to overlook FIU on Friday night. The Panthers are one of the most improved teams in the nation, coming off the first bowl appearance in school history and the first conference title in school history. They have a veteran group of players that played well in their nonconference games last year. Remember, this is a team that nearly beat Rutgers to open last season.

Then there is Hilton, one of the most dangerous players in the country. In the season opener against North Texas last week, Hilton racked up 283 all-purpose yards -- the second-highest total in his career. He can do it all -- he's the team's top receiver, he is a threat out of the backfield and he returns kicks.

"T.Y. is an outstanding football player," Louisville coach Charlie Strong said. "We're going to have to find a way to corral him."

Hilton provides a big test for the young Cardinals secondary. Louisville held its own against Murray State last week with Anthony Conner and freshman Andrew Johnson making their starts. Conner picked up an interception in the win, and Strong thought they both did a good job.

But this is a much bigger challenge. Louisville hopes to have cornerback Jordon Paschal back after he missed last week with an injury. But still, the secondary is one of the most inexperienced units on the team, so the play of safeties Shenard Holton and Hakeem Smith is going to be even more important this week so they can provide support in trying to top Hilton.

"I don't know if we can cover him," Strong said. "We need to get enough guys around him so if he does catch it, we can get him on the ground."

Hilton was the Sun Belt Player of the Year in 2010 after racking up 2,089 all-purpose yards, including 210 in the bowl win over Toledo. He is a big reason FIU is no longer an afterthought in the Sun Belt.

There are other areas Louisville will have to improve on in this game. The offensive line, featuring five new starters, had a rough go of it in the opener. Center Mario Benavides is out for a second straight week, so the Cardinals will go with the same lineup. Will Stein has a sprained ankle but should be good to go, and he needs to make sure he is productive throughout the entire game. The Cardinals cannot afford to have four turnovers the way they did against Murray State, either.

Focusing on this contest is hugely important, and Strong knows that. He has a young team -- 2o players got their first game experience last week -- so there is a lot of growing up yet to do before the Kentucky game Sept. 17.

“We’re not good enough to look ahead,” Strong said. “There has been no mention at all of Kentucky.”