MIAMI (WDRB) -- The University of Louisville football players were waving at their fan contingent in water-logged FIU Stadium after beating Florida International 28-21 Saturday night, smiling at family, pointing at friends. As they began to run off the field, running backs coach Kenny Carter held up four fingers, followed by his hand curled into a zero.
That's the Cardinals' record, 4-0, but there were some other, less hopeful signs in this somewhat disjointed and emotional game, a game in which the Cardinals faced their first deficit of the season.
Fans watching on their Internet feeds at home might not have picked up on the emotion in the mostly empty stadium, a true collection of friends and family for both sides. U of L quarterback Teddy Bridgewater said he'd played seven times on the same field in high school, against many of the same players. When FIU went to freshman quarterback E.J. Hilliard in the second half, it was the player who replaced Bridgewater as QB at Miami Northwestern High School.
U of L receiver Andrell Smith, who had what may have been the best game of his career, was playing on what was his high school's home field.
"It's a lot of emotions for a lot of guys," Smith said. "Being back here, wanting to do well, playing in front of your family, your friends, where we come from. A lot of emotions."
Walking around the neighborhoods of some of these players, you get a feel for what it means to move away and play Division I football. They're spoken of in respectful tones. It's a big deal. And for the guys who stay home and play, they hear about these same guys, so that when they come home, it's a huge deal to play against them.
It can make you press a little. U of L players wouldn't say it. Charlie Strong didn't have a reason for it. This wasn't a U of L team that wasn't fired up. But it was a U of L team that wasn't dialed in.
The game was strange from the outset. Flash floods hit the Miami area. Parking lots were closed. You had to wade through shin-deep water to get into the stadium. U of L's radio broadcast team broadcast from a tent in the middle of standing water.
U of L coaches, right before kickoff, were told they'd have to relinquish their headsets, and all of them went scrambling downstairs to the field. Turns out FIU's headsets weren't working, so U of L couldn't use them either.
"You try not to let it change things, but yeah, it changes a lot," said U of L offensive coordinator Shawn Watson, who called the game from the field instead of his usual elevated perch. "Instead of seeing things for yourself, you're relying on your players to tell you more what they're seeing on defense. It is different, but both sides had to do the same things."
Had Watson been up top, perhaps, he'd have gotten a clearer view of U of L's most ineffective rushing half of the season. The Cards carried 10 times for just 29 yards in the first half. U of L looked steady enough on its first drive, going 70 yards, with 50 of it off Teddy Bridgewater passes. It was the typical U of L opening drive, deliberate and effective.
But U of L would run for only nine yards the rest of the half. After U of L scored, FIU marched easily itself to a tying touchdown, and when Bridgewater threw an interception on U of L's next play -- his first of the season -- you got the sense that this would not be an easy night for U of L.
FIU went up 14-7 after a couple of big completions by QB Jake Medlock, who would leave the game with a broken foot after the Panthers scored the go-ahead TD.
U of L pulled even at halftime, aided by a pass interference call. Even so, it took a throw from Bridgewater to Smith to score from the 1-yard line after two rushing tries failed.
In the third quarter, a forced fumble on a punt return after a 3-and-out gave the Cards a spark, and they used three big running plays that covered 44 yards to go ahead for good at 21-14. One of the game's big adjustments was U of L going to some I-formation sets out of Watson's West Coast package, and using lead blockers.
"We just ran lead football in the second half," Watson said. "It was pretty easy to see they wanted to blitz us and try to keep the pressure on our run game with the blitz, so we just ran lead football and wound up cracking some nice runs."
U of L's final scoring drive was typical West Coast possession football. Taking the ball on their own 10, the Cards worked their way methodically up the field with runs and short passes, taking 14 plays and eating up 8:09 of the clock before scoring early in the fourth quarter.
But the U of L defense, which gave up large chunks of yardage when the game should've been put away last week, couldn't get FIU stopped in the fourth quarter. The Panthers pulled within a touchdown after Bridgewater's second interception of the game gave them the ball at the U of L 32.
And when the Cards got the ball with 4:53 left, they used less than a minute before having to punt. But a roughing the kicker call saved them, and the Cards were able to run out the rest of the game.
Afterward, Strong stressed the notion that his team finished the game better than it did a week ago against North Carolina, and that it won a game when it wasn't playing its best.
"We were able to finish," Strong said. ". . . It was all about toughness. They won the line of scrimmage in the first half. In the second half we were able to establish ourselves at the line of scrimmage."
But even as the wins pile up for the Cardinals, so do the questions.
Is this the defense U of L coaches envisioned before the season? Strong said of the defense Saturday: "We're not playing smart, not executing, not showing good fundamentals."
Defensive tackle Brandon Dunn said he thinks the unit is improving.
"It's coming on," he said. "The coaches expect and we expect to be dominating right now and we're not getting there, so we're a little rattled in our head. But we just have to understand that we're 4-0 right now, we show flashes of being a great defense and our time is going to come. Our time is going to come this year when we need it, it's just hard for us right now because we expect so much of ourselves."
Bridgewater didn't have his best night, forced a few balls, and was off at times. Still, he carried the offense in the first half and made the biggest plays in the tightest situations to win the game. He finished with 194 yards passing and 2 TDs.
Still, you get the feeling that this young team has the talent to avoid such tight spots against the competition it's facing. Too many games, instead of pulling away, you feel this U of L team is fortunate to get away.
It probably shouldn't be that way, and definitely shouldn't stay that way.
But for now, the Cards are 4-0 for the first time since their Orange Bowl season of 2006, and still smiling about it.
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