PITTSBURGH — The day Charlie Strong took over at Louisville nearly three years ago, he gave a memorable, paint-peeling speech in which he told the sliding Cardinals the status quo was no longer acceptable.
After watching his 18th-ranked team slog through an unremarkable opening half against Pittsburgh on Saturday, Strong reiterated the point. And just like the first time around, he got the desired results.
Teddy Bridgewater hit DeVante Parker for a 75-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the second half to give Louisville the lead and the Cardinals pulled away for a 45-35 victory to continue their best start since 2006.
“There were some very choice words, but you have to get them going and sometime that’s the only way,” Strong said.
Senorise Perry rushed for 101 yards and a career-high four touchdowns for Louisville (6-0, 1-0 Big East), which ended a four-game losing streak to Pitt. Bridgewater finished with 304 yards passing while Parker had four receptions for 153 yards, most of them coming after Strong’s blistering pep talk.
Parker’s score came in the middle of a 24-point burst by Louisville spanning the second and third quarters that turned a seven-point deficit into a 38-21 lead.
“Opening up the Big East schedule with a win is a big confidence boost for us,” Bridgewater said. “Hopefully it will send a message to the rest of the Big East.”
Tino Sunseri passed for 287 yards and two touchdowns but Pitt (2-4, 0-3) couldn’t complete a late rally.
Trailing by 10 with 5 minutes to play, the Panthers faced fourth-and-8 at the Louisville 22. Instead of attempting a 39-yard field goal to draw within a touchdown, the Panthers went for it and Sunseri’s pass for Cam Saddler fell incomplete.
Pitt coach Paul Chryst offered no excuses for the decision.
“I felt like we could get it,” he said. “I wanted to put it in the players’ hands … I felt good putting the play call in. We didn’t execute it.”
Perry then raced 59 yards down the sideline for his final touchdown to seal it. He is the first Louisville running back to score four times in a single game since Michael Bush accomplished the feat during a triple-overtime loss to West Virginia in 2005.
“He is an interesting kid,” Louisville center Mario Benavides said. “He works his butt off. Whatever the coaches ask him to do, whether it is special teams or anything, he does.”
The Cardinals began the season as the overwhelming Big East favorite but some of the shine was stripped away by sluggish road wins at overmatched Florida International and Southern Mississippi coupled with the impressive starts by No. 20 Rutgers and No. 21 Cincinnati.
Louisville has been parked toward the bottom third of the Top 25 all season, leading Strong to repeatedly blast Aretha Franklin’s version of “Respect” in the locker room over the last two weeks.
The Cardinals are hoping Strong will select a new song following their electric second half.
“I’m getting pretty sick of it,” Benavides said.
The surge actually began shortly before the end of the first half. Pitt controlled the game early, taking a 21-14 lead behind consistent play from Sunseri, aggressive running from Rushel Shell and a blocked punt that linebacker Todd Thomas turned into a touchdown.
When the Panthers got greedy, however, they got in trouble. Faced with a fourth-and-1 at the Louisville 42 with less than a minute to go in the half, Pitt opted to go for it. Shell was stuffed for a 1-yard loss and Louisville took over.
Three plays generated little and the Cardinals had fourth-and-8 at their own 45 with 22 seconds left. Rather than kick, Louisville gambled and Bridgewater delivered a pretty 27-yard completion to Parker.
The play gave Louisville enough room for John Wallace to hit a 45-yard field goal just before the gun and provide the Cardinals the kickstart they needed.
“They were playing man (defense),” Parker said. “We knew we could beat that and just had to make big plays.”
They were just beginning for the Cardinals.
Taking over at the Louisville 25 to start the second half, Bridgewater dropped back and found a streaking Parker down the left sideline. The sophomore receiver hauled it in and beat a pair of defenders to the end zone to give Louisville its first lead.
“Teddy just threw it up and I got it,” Parker said.
Pitt went three-and-out and Louisville started again at its own 32. Eli Rodgers made a beautiful diving grab for a 29-yard gain on third-and-8 to move the Cardinals into Pitt territory. Bridgewater’s 35-yard strike to Parker helped set up Perry’s 2-yard TD run that made it 31-21.
A botched Pitt punt snap later in the third quarter gave the Cardinals the ball deep in Panthers territory, and Perry went up the middle from a yard out to put Louisville up 17.
“At any point in the game when momentum goes away, you’ve got to fight to get it back your way,” Chryst said. “We didn’t do that and that’s where, during the third quarter, you saw the separation.”