LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- On the Papa John's Cardinal Stadium sidelines in the first half of Saturday's 39-34 win over North Carolina, it felt like 2005. For those of you who don't remember, that was the year U of L throttled the Tar Heels 69-14 in that same stadium.
Except in some ways, this was more impressive than in 2005. The stadium now is larger, and this crowd, with its Thunder Sticks, gave the game a big-time feel. U of L rolled to a 36-7 halftime lead. Its Final Four men's basketball players walked out to an ovation, showing off their new Final Four rings. Angel McCoughtry waved to the roar of the crowd, her Olympic gold medal for women's basketball hanging around her neck.
And, forgive this quick diversion, as you looked around at all that, Final Four team ranked in the top 3 this preseason, top women's basketball scorer in the nation off a U of L women's hoops team that played in the national title game, football team beating the snot out of an ACC opponent, it was tough not to see all that and ask, where conference realignment is concerned, "This isn't enough?"
The Cardinals were scoring a touchdown every 7.4 plays. Teddy Bridgewater went 16 of 19 in the first half and those three incompletions were balls he got rid of to avoid pressure, and he nearly completed one of those. They didn't hand out stat sheets down on the sideline, but I didn't need one to know what U of L had gotten on offense -- whatever it wanted.
U of L was putting on a show. Then somebody pulled the plug. A switch was flipped.
I don't want to say the Cardinals looked bad in the second half.
But the Cardinals looked bad in the second half.
And this has become a problem. Perhaps the most-uttered words as Cardinal fans left the stadium on Saturday were "let off the gas." It wasn't quite a throwback to 2005. Those U of L teams would score 30 in the first half, then 30 more in the second. This team seems to like to get a lead, then try to stiffarm the opponent to the final horn.
Get up on UK, then let off the gas. Get up on the Tar Heels, then let off the gas. There was plenty of grumbling about the Cards getting conservative on offense in the second half, but that was overblown. The Cards threw on first down, for instance, on a higher percentage of plays in the third quarter than they did in the whole first half. They took their first drive down the field in the second half, then went for a fourth down and came up short.
On their second drive of the half they wound up with a field goal. But there's no denying, as UNC revved up, U of L was trying to slow things down. Bridgewater only threw two passes in the fourth quarter.
"We weren't trying to change things at all," Bridgewater said. "But when you feel like you can run the ball in that situation, that's what you do."
The bigger issue was on defense, where the Cards gave up scores in a hurry. UNC's final three touchdowns took up 3:37 -- combined. That's how a game that shouldn't have been close came down to the Tar Heels' last offensive play.
Even that play was a bit shaky. North Carolina took a timeout to talk it over on fourth and goal from the U of L 4. Charlie Strong, meanwhile, was talking it over with his defense. Strong told his guys they were going to win they game. Now, did they want to win it with defense or make the offense handle it.
Still, Andrew Johnson, cornerback, had to come sprinting onto the field to get into position -- out of the timeout -- to make the game-saving play of deflecting the pass.
Strong said his team lacked maturity and focus. Several U of L players said they believed the team got complacent.
Even Strong didn't have his finest moment late. He called for a couple of handoffs when he could've taken a knee, and offensive lineman John Miller was hurt on one of those handoffs -- though he has since Tweeted that he'll play this weekend against FIU.
All of this, of course, serves as a reminder that this is a team and a coach still finding their way. It just so happens that when they stumble upon it, as they did Saturday, the results are remarkable.
But I will tell you this -- this young U of L team might be more likely to win its three upcoming road games because of the way this one ended than it would have been otherwise. Strong will have the attention of his players this week. Enthusiasm will be tempered.
There's still work to do. But when this bunch does work, it's usually the opponent on the receiving end of the lessons.
"Last week we learned we have to come out and put our foot on the gas from the start," Bridgewater said. "This week we learned that we have to finish."
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