LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) -Cincinnati defensive tackle Adam Hoppel has seen plenty in his five years with the Bearcats.
Coaching changes. Bowl games. Upsets. That insane finish in last week's 26-23 overtime win over West Virginia that gave Cincinnati a major boost toward a Big East title.
Yet there's one thing Hoppel and his teammates on the surprising 22nd-ranked Bearcats haven't seen: the Keg of Nails.
The small wooden barrel that symbolizes the rivalry between the Bearcats and Louisville has crossed the Ohio River just once in the last decade. The Cardinals are 9-1 in their last 10 against the Bearcats, including a perfect 3-0 since both teams joined the Big East.
During Hoppel's career, games against the Cardinals have gone something like this: the keg starts the game sitting on a table on the Louisville sideline and three hours later a member of Cardinals lifts it up after another victory.
``That's one thing I'd really like to get before I leave,'' Hoppel said.
To get it the Bearcats (7-2, 3-1 Big East) will need to maintain the focus that has carried them to six wins in their last seven games despite a slew of injuries at quarterback so severe you couldn't blame coach Brian Kelly if he forced his quarterbacks to wear name tags in the huddle.
Junior Tony Pike - one of four Bearcats to play under center this season - will get the start against the Cardinals after saving Cincinnati's season last week against West Virginia. The Bearcats let a 13-point lead get away in the final two minutes of regulation but won 26-23 in overtime when Pike hit Kazeem Alli for a 2-yard score.
Coach Brian Kelly thinks a lesser team would have folded after nearly giving the game away but isn't exactly ready to say the Bearcats have arrived.
``If we go down and play lousy at Louisville, it diminishes it greatly,'' Kelly said. ``It's another step (but) you're validated by championships. That win means we have another week to be in contention.''
The Bearcats have stayed in contention no matter who is at quarterback thanks to a senior-laden defense that has been steady if not exactly spectacular. Cincinnati held West Virginia to 98 yards rushing last week, the first time in seven seasons the Mountaineers didn't crack 100 yards on the ground.
That's not exactly good for Louisville (5-4, 1-3), which needs to be able to run the ball effectively to create time for quarterback Hunter Cantwell. The senior has struggled when put under pressure and his 11 interceptions are the most in the Big East.
Coach Steve Kragthorpe briefly replaced Cantwell with freshman Matt Simms during last week's 41-7 loss to Pittsburgh but says he's sticking by his captain as long as Cantwell gives the team the best chance to win.
``Hunter's a fierce competitor and stood in there and taken some shots,'' Kragthorpe said.
So have the rest of the Cardinals, who have dropped two straight after upsetting South Florida on Oct. 25. Kragthorpe had hoped the win over the Bulls was the breakthrough the Cardinals have been looking for since he replaced Bobby Petrino almost two years ago.
It didn't happen. Louisville stumbled against woeful Syracuse for the second straight year and then got blown out in the fourth quarter against the surging Panthers. The loss erased any hopes of an outside shot at a conference title and forced Kragthorpe to readjust his team's goals.
``We're getting closer to where we want to be, but certainly we've got to win more football games,'' Kragthorpe said. ``But we're not looking behind us, we're looking ahead of us.''
That might not be the best idea. Louisville will need to win two of its final three games or it will likely miss a bowl for the second straight season. The Cardinals host West Virginia next week and travel to Rutgers to end the year. The time to grab control of what is becoming another disappointing year is growing short.
``We're going to fight,'' Kragthorpe said. ``I'm convinced we have a team of fighters. They're frustrated, but they're frustrated in a good way. I think they're fighting their butts off. ... I still feel good about this team. I feel good about our chances.''
So do the Bearcats, who can set up a showdown with Pittsburgh next weekend if it can beat Louisville for the first time in six years. Kelly, however, doesn't expect his team to be looking ahead. The Bearcats need only look across the sideline at the Keg that's been Louisville's property most of the last decade for motivation.
``It's not much of a rivalry when you don't beat the other team,'' he said. ``We need to make this a rivalry.''

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