LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Louisville's seniors have a simple reason for wanting to win Saturday's home finale over Connecticut.
It hasn't been done in a while.
A victory would be the seniors' first in three tries under coach Charlie Strong. The No. 19 Cardinals (9-1, 4-1 Big East) can also achieve double-digit victories for the fourth time in school history, all since 2001.
Staying within reach of league-leading Rutgers entering next Thursday's showdown in New Jersey adds more motivation for one of the nation's smallest senior classes. Louisville has 13 overall and just 10 on scholarship, and half of them began their careers as walk-ons.
Since going 4-8 as freshmen they've had three straight winning seasons and seek the school's second BCS bowl bid along with a successful home send-off.
Though Strong's staff didn't recruit this group, he recognizes the groundwork they've laid for younger classes.
"When we came in, we talked about our foundation," Strong said. "I just feel this group is a part of us because they've been with us for three years and they have been a part of watching this program build. You cannot ask for a stronger group of seniors with the leadership they have provided this season."
Left tackle Alex Kupper said Strong's philosophy that the hardest workers would earn playing time allowed his classmates to seize their opportunity. He earned his scholarship after a year and a half and has started every game the past two seasons, playing at each position along the offensive line.
"The guys that stuck around, that's just what we're bred for," Kupper said. "We wanted to fight through it. We wanted to see it turn around and, ultimately, it has."
The seniors' steadiness, coupled with young stars such as quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, sprung Louisville to a 9-0 start before falling 45-26 at Syracuse on Nov. 10. The loss ended Louisville's hopes of a perfect season but not its preseason goal of a Big East championship and accompanying BCS berth in the Orange Bowl.
A win over Connecticut (4-6, 1-4) — which needs two wins to become bowl eligible — would set up a de facto conference title game at Rutgers just five days later.
"There's still more to go get," said wide receiver Scott Radcliff, who earned his scholarship after three years as a walk-on. "Hopefully we can get to that Orange Bowl. Just to go there — I (would) never forget that."
Kupper wants his class to be remembered for returning the program to the heights of the 2006 season that ended with a 24-13 Orange Bowl win against Wake Forest.
"That team was the team," the Louisville native said. "To be in that position, to be maybe the team that generations behind us talk about, that's really special."
Saturday's game will be played amid rumors that Louisville and Connecticut are the leading candidates to replace Maryland in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Terrapins and Rutgers announced earlier this week that they will join the Big Ten in 2014.
The Cardinals will be without leading rusher Senorise Perry, who tore his right ACL against Syracuse and is out for the remainder of the season. Jeremy Wright will pick up additional carries after previously splitting the feature back role with Perry. Freshman Corvin Lamb will spell Wright against Connecticut's 11th-ranked rushing defense (107.6 yards per game).
Both teams are coming off bye weeks and the Huskies' mood is looking up after getting their first Big East win two weeks ago against Pittsburgh. A postseason game is only possible by knocking off the ranked Cardinals on Saturday and Cincinnati next week.
"It's the only motivation we have at this point," tight end Ryan Griffin said. "We're holding on and we're a desperate team. We need these last two wins to get to a bowl and make this season a success."