LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) -- The ceremony was short. No big speeches necessary.
In a relieved locker room after Louisville beat North Carolina State on Saturday, center Eric Wood grabbed a ball and handed it to coach Steve Kragthorpe.
After two weeks of turmoil that included consecutive losses to Kentucky and Syracuse and the dismissal of enigmatic linebacker Willie Williams following his arrest on a drug charge, the gesture was just a way for the players to say they've got their first-year head coach's back.
"He's been taking all the hits for us, he hasn't been singling any players out or any offense/defense/special teams, that's why Eric decided to give him the game ball," said running back Brock Bolen.
Kragthorpe received the brunt of the criticism for his team's slow start. He repeatedly took the blame for the team's struggles, even though the players know he was hardly the only one culpable for Louisville's quick fall from the Top 10.
"When it really comes down to it, coach doesn't miss assignments out there, he doesn't blow tackles," defensive lineman Rodney Gnat said. "Just knowing coach is still positive with us gives us a little encouragement, he really deserved it."
Though hardly pretty, Louisville's 29-10 victory over the Wolfpack seemed to restore a sense of confidence to a team shaken by its worst start in five years. The Cardinals (3-2) host Utah (2-3) on Friday hoping the solid if unspectacular play against the Wolfpack wasn't a mirage.
"We have improved (but) to say that we've arrived, I don't think is a fair assessment," Kragthorpe said. "We've still got a lot of work to do."
Just a little less, maybe, than the Cardinals had to do following their embarrassing loss to the Orange. Louisville forced five turnovers against the Wolfpack and held North Carolina State to 10 points, the fewest points the Cardinals have allowed to a Bowl Subdivision team since a 31-8 win over South Florida last season.
"We did a better job of rallying to the ball, we tackled better," Kragthorpe said. "We didn't tackle as well as we need to, but we did tackle better."
Kragthorpe promised changes following the loss to Syracuse, and the new blood seemed to invigorate a defense that entered the game ranked 90th in the country. Gnat and freshman cornerback Johnny Patrick and junior Bobby Buchanan made their first career starts against the Wolfpack.
Patrick made his first career interception, leading to an Art Carmody field goal. Gnat provided pressure off the end and Buchanan had four tackles and a pass break-up. Kragthorpe also moved defensive tackle Earl Heyman to end, and Heyman responded with his first sack of the year. He also recovered a fumble.
"Winning is good medicine, but winning doesn't mask that there are some things we still need to continue to improve on," Kragthorpe said. "That you're not losing doesn't (minimize) ... what we need to fix."
The defense should get another boost on Friday when tackle Adrian Grady returns to the lineup after missing the North Carolina State game due to injury. Wide receiver Harry Douglas -- who is second in the country in receiving yards per game -- should also play. He missed the first game of his career last week with an apparent knee injury. Defensive end Peanut Whitehead, who did not play last week while dealing with a family issue, should also be available.
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