When I was told I had been named a new writer for CSZ, I thought about what my first post should be about. This is such a great time of year, with basketball in full swing as another Cardinal team enters December with high aspirations and for the 6th straight year, Cardinal Football is going to a bowl. There was no bad choice for me to make, both teams are heading in positive directions and are exciting (though frustrating at times) to watch and talk about.
While basketball holds a special place in my heart, I decided to write about football. I decided to write about football because all I’ve been able to think about while watching this team play is, “wow we have this team for the next 2-3 years!” For the Cardinal fans, that is music to our ears. For the rest of the nation, that’s a scary thought. The Cards came into the season receiving praise from more than a few analysts. Some even picked the Cards to win the ACC Atlantic division over previous ACC champion Florida State and now ACC champion Clemson.
Some laughed at the thought of beating out two national powerhouses, some saw the potential the team had and considered it a real possibility, and some just simply paid no attention to the newest member of the ACC. All three reactions have their evidence to back them up, those who laughed simply stated Louisville hadn’t beaten Clemson or Florida State in their first year so why should it happen this year? Those who thought it to be possible called on the success of the defense and what many believed would be an improved unit this year.
Lastly, those who ignored the comments simply overlooked the amount of talent this team truly possesses because of the inexperience in the offense. After an 0-3 start, 3 different starting quarterbacks, and major defensive problems that were nonexistent last year, nearly everyone crossed the Cards off their bowl list. I remember waiting each Monday after a weekend of college football just to see what bowl the analysts had the Cards traveling to. For the first 6 weeks that bowl predictions were made, I saw at least one analyst with a sad “No Bowl” next to the Cards’ name. For the fans it was frustrating, for the team it was fuel.
Many overlook the win against Samford, but take a closer look, not at the result but at the performance. A weak non-conference opponent at home, for the team to take their frustrations out on could not have come at a better time. And the performance, it was exactly what we as fans love to see and saw it for the first time from this young bunch. The players flew to the ball, made big hits and solid tackles, put up a lot of points and did it with exciting style. But the most important part? They did it together, and had fun. As Louisville fans, we have been spoiled in recent years with enormous success to brag about and cheer for. An 0-3 start to match the program’s first 0-3 start since 1984 (that team finished 2-9) induced panic mode for the fans. 3 losses to Auburn, Houston, and Clemson by a total of 13 points was not the start the team was going for.
Fast forward to the next game, a road test against an unbeaten NC State with senior leadership and a high quality running back. This was it, we win this game and the season is still alive, a loss would almost certainly create a hole too deep to climb out of. The Cards went into Raleigh underdogs, but left victors. Outside fans brushed away the win, calling NC State “overrated”. We didn’t care, and neither did the team. Because that road victory was far more than just a solid road win, it was a statement. And that statement made read, “The Future is Bright”.
The Cards went on to lose at Florida State due to a second half collapse after dominating the Seminoles in the first half. However, the Cards bounced back with 4 straight wins against Boston College, at Wake, Syracuse, and a revenge game against Virginia. The Cards closed out their ACC season with tough road loss at Pitt, where they dug a deep hole early and nearly climbed out to shock the Panthers.
So, with all the drama that followed the team throughout the season we found ourselves with a 6-5 record with the Battle for the Governor’s Cup in Lexington to finish the regular season. As we all know, this game is circled on the calendars in every sports fan’s home in the Bluegrass. But this year the game was more important. After last year’s 44-40 victory at home (with a 3rd string quarterback), the fans in blue warned Louisville fans saying, “enjoy this one, it’ll be the last one for awhile”. I never once believed that to be true, even with the 0-3 start this year to match the Wildcats 2-0 starting record.
The game had a lot on the line, for the second year in a row UK had to get through the Cards to get to a bowl. The Cards were playing for more than just bragging rights, they were playing to finish an up and down season with a statement against a hopeful BBN desperate for a win against their interstate rival. The game did not start out as planned for red and white, two badly thrown interceptions (one returned for an 80 yard touchdown) and a seemingly effortless first drive touchdown, the Cards found themselves down 21-0 still with 4:42 left to play in the first quarter.
The environment was chaotic, fans in blue smiling from ear to ear, fans in red shocked, and the players with the choice to fight or lay down. In the team’s most desperate hour, we saw the future of Cardinal Football. And his name is Lamar Jackson. As mentioned earlier, 3 different quarterbacks started games for the Cards early in the season. Two of them battled for the starting spot all year. Several depth charts read “or” between Lamar Jackson’s and Kyle Bolin’s names. Kyle got the nod for this game, but Lamar got the win. Without playing most of the first quarter, Lamar put on a clinic with only one hiccup (the interception inside Kentucky territory). The Wildcat defense had no answer to the legs of who many now refer to as Action Jackson. Rushing for 186 yards and 2 touchdowns, and throwing for 130 yards with another touchdown to James Quick. That was when Lamar officially proved to the Commonwealth, the Governor’s Cup isn’t going anywhere.
Once Lamar entered the game, a calm spread over the Cardinal Faithful. The confidence the team, fans, and coaching staff had in a freshman quarterback created the perfect storm for the Cards. The defense performed the way we knew they were capable of. The offensive line looked significantly more comfortable. Brandon Radcliff looked like the dominant running back we had seen last season. And the receiving corps made plays when needed most. Kentucky’s hopes for a bowl were crushed by the Cards for a second straight year, and the claims made by BBN after last year’s contest were not mentioned by anyone in blue.
Lamar is the future, breaking the records Teddy Bridgewater set as a freshman along with others set by Cardinal greats, and that is something to be mentioned. A 7-5 overall record, with a 5-3 3rd place finish in the loaded ACC Atlantic was a better finish than most imagined after the 0-3 start. Louisville became only the 22nd team to make a bowl game after starting 0-3, that’s a pretty awesome statistic. The Cards earned a bid to the Music City Bowl to face an 8-4 Texas A&M team. December 30th can’t come quick enough. The Cards will likely be underdogs when the game kicks off, but that hasn’t stopped the program before (how did that “sure loss” Sugar Bowl matchup turn out again?). As if they haven’t enough already, the Cards are ready to prove that the future is bright, and that the ACC Atlantic will no longer be just a two team race.
Like the win over Florida, a win over the Aggies will bring recognition. The future is bright, with the healthy majority of the offense coming at the hands of freshmen and sophomores, the defense showing its true potential, and Bobby Petrino finding a successful system. One can only hope and imagine what the next few years will bring, this team has the potential be a dominant football program in years to come. The answers are written everywhere for the Cards, we’ve known for awhile, after December 30th the whole nation will see them too. It’s time for a new era, Cards fans, and it has the potential to be the most dominant era in Louisville football history. Take pride in cheering on the underdog in Nashville, it might be last time for awhile.