MIAMI -- The message is getting old for fifth-ranked Louisville.
Nearly every day during the past year, coach Bobby Petrino relentlessly has hit the Cardinals with the same refrain -- finish.
Finish practice. Finish the play. Finish the tackle. Finish the game.
It's a motto born of late-second frustrations and meltdowns that have cost the program in years past.
"We need to show that we can win the big game and just keep going," Petrino said.
And while the mantra has grown tiresome to the Cardinals (11-1), they know there's only one way to silence their coaches: finish off the best season in school history with a victory over No. 15 Wake Forest (11-2) tonight in the Orange Bowl.
"It's been drilled into our head," center Eric Wood said. "We don't even really have to talk about it anymore. Now it's time to finish the season and we have an opportunity to finish the season better than any Louisville team ever has."
The stage has never been bigger for either program. The Cardinals see their first Bowl Championship Series appearance as the final step in a process that began nearly a decade ago, when Petrino and then-coach John L. Smith set about creating an offense designed to be the nation's best at a school where basketball has long been king.
There's still work to be done, but the Cardinals know a victory could give them a more permanent seat at college football's head table. A win would guarantee Louisville the highest final ranking in its history and continue the march toward Petrino's ultimate goal: a spot in the BCS title game.
"When we started the season this year it was talking about taking the next step and winning the Big East Conference and getting to a BCS bowl game," Petrino said. "I feel like this is a step toward next season."
The Demon Deacons, meanwhile, will try to validate their remarkable turnaround season. Wake Forest stormed to the top of the Atlantic Coast Conference behind an opportunistic defense and affable coach Jim Grobe, who has done his best to make his players believe that one of the nation's smallest schools could hold its own with college football's elite.
"We felt we could do this, but nobody else did," defensive tackle Jamil Smith said. "So it was just great to prove people wrong."
The Demon Deacons will have to do it one more time against the Cardinals, who are prohibitive favorites despite owning just one January bowl win in school history and being 2-6 over their last eight bowl appearances.
Petrino knows the pressure will be on the Cardinals, but it's a role he thinks his players have grown accustomed to over the last four years.
"I think our guys enjoy it," Petrino said. "I think they like the stage and I think they like the competitiveness, and certainly [they've] always done a good job of putting on a show when they're supposed to."
It's a show that has made plenty of opposing defenses look helpless. The Cardinals have the nation's second-ranked defense and are led by junior quarterback Brian Brohm, who has thrown for 2,738 yards and 16 touchdowns despite missing parts of three games with a thumb injury.
"You can be going along playing pretty good defense and all of a sudden they've got a bunch of points on the board," Grobe said. "So we've got to play four full quarters."
So do the Cardinals. While they're excited to be in the Orange Bowl, they also know they were just two quarters away from a possible spot in the BCS title game against Ohio State. Louisville's only loss came against then-No. 14 Rutgers on Nov. 9, a game the Cardinals led by 18 in the second quarter.
It's a lesson that reinforced Petrino's "finish" mantra. The Demon Deacons lack Louisville's flash, but make up for it with a steady running attack and a defense that leads the nation in interceptions (22) and rarely makes mistakes. To win, they'll need to move the ball efficiently enough to keep Brohm and company on the sideline.
"I think we need to play good defense, but part of playing good defense is not to have to live on the field all day," Grobe said.
Both programs know what's on the line.
"You probably can't even gauge what a win would be for our program," Grobe said. "We know we've got our work cut out for us."
For the Cardinals, it's a chance to finish what they started, and force Petrino to come up with a new motto for next season.
"He'll think of something," Brohm said. "They always do."