ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Charlie Strong is making good on his pledge to turn around the Louisville Cardinals.
A lot sooner than some people expected, too.
Louisville quarterback Justin Burke, a Lexington Catholic graduate, threw for two touchdowns and Jeremy Wright scored on a 95-yard kickoff return Tuesday night to help the Cards beat Southern Mississippi 31-28 in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl and finish its first winning record in four years.
"It's so big, just from where we started out," said Strong, the former Florida defensive coordinator who took over the Cardinals last December, inheriting a team that went 4-8 and lost six of seven games in the Big East in 2009.
"Nobody ever gave us a chance. And to watch this football team fight through so much adversity, go work so hard, develop trust, develop commitment - that's what it's all about, getting a foundation within this program."
Burke tossed scoring passes to 11 yards to Cameron Graham and 10 yards to Josh Chichester while the Cardinals (7-6) were overcoming an early 14-point deficit, then produced a go-ahead field goal in the fourth quarter.
Austin Davis threw 205 yards and two touchdowns to become Southern Mississippi's career TD pass leader, moving ahead of Brett Favre and Lee Roberts in the Golden Eagles record book with 53 in three seasons.
The Southern Miss quarterback also scored on a 17-yard reception from receiver Quentin Pierce.
Wright's long kickoff return made it 28-all early in the fourth quarter. Chris Philpott's 36-yard field goal gave the Cardinals their first lead with 6:30 remaining.
"It was amazing. I just thank all the people that were blocking for me," Wright said. "We needed a game changer, and we were able to do that all together."
Davis completed 19 of 32 passes, including TD throws of 32 yards to Pierce and 8 yards to Zeke Walters for the Golden Eagles (8-5).
In addition to becoming the Southern Miss career TD pass leader, the junior moved into second place on the school's career passing list with 7,396 yards - 299 short of the 7,695 Favre threw for from 1987-90. Meanwhile, Desmond Johnson scored on a 62-yard run and finished with a season-high 107 yards rushing.
"Definitely a very tough loss for our football team," Southern Miss coach Larry Fedora said. "They're always tough when they're close and you realize that you're a play away here or a play away there. It's kind of been that way for us this season with our five losses."
Bilal Powell rushed for 75 yards for Louisville - well below his season average of 120.9 - however the 215-pound senior was instrumental in helping the Cardinals exhaust most of the clock after finally taking the lead.
Although they were meeting for the first time in a bowl game, there's a long history between the former conference rivals.
The Cardinals and Golden Eagles faced each other every season from 1978 to 1991 and both were members of C-USA 1996 to 2004, the season before Louisville moved to the Big East.
Southern Miss scored on its first two possessions, taking a quick 14-0 lead on Pierce's TD reception and Johnson's long run that left Louisville's defense, which ranked 11th nationally during the regular season, looking sluggish and bewildered.
The Cardinals didn't flinch, though, methodically climbing back into the game with help from linebacker Antwone Canady's fumble recovery, which set up Powell's 6-yard touchdown run and enabled Louisville to pull even at 21-all late in the first half.
Strong took over a team that many picked to finish last in the Big East. He wound up being co-coach of the year after a 3-4 finish in the conference, achieved despite not having starting quarterback Adam Froman for the team's four games in November.
"He turned this program around. And this game is important for us seniors, but it's very important for this program," Burke said. "It's a statement game ... that this program is really going to go up."
Burke completed 20 of 32 passes for 178 yards in his fifth consecutive start for the Cardinals, who went 3-2 in those games. He scrambled 19 yards on third-and-3 before throwing his TD pass to Graham to trim Louisville's deficit to 14-7 early in the second quarter.
Southern Miss answered with a seven-play, 64-yard march that Davis finished with his first his only reception of the season.
The 6-foot-2, 200-pound quarterback from Meridian, Miss., circled to his right out of the backfield after handing off to receiver Kelvin Bolden, who handed to Pierce as he was heading around left end.
Davis became the Golden Eagles' career TD pass leader on the first play of the fourth quarter, finding Walters in the right corner of the end zone to snap a 21-21 tie.
The lead lasted 15 seconds, as Wright took the kickoff on the left side of field and eventually made his way to the right sideline to finish the longest return in the short history of the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl.
"It's tough. I think we had chances to make more plays," Davis said. "Kind of been the story all year."