LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- Vance Bedford was right. The train was coming.
Did anyone get a license number?
University of Louisville football fans have seen the tiny light on the horizon growing bigger each week. They have heard the warning whistles: the defensive miscues, the missed tackles, the special teams struggles.
Against Syracuse on Saturday, all of those pulled into the station, and U of L's unbeaten season jumped the tracks. Syracuse steamed over the Cardinals 45-26, the most lopsided loss of the Charlie Strong era. The surprise wasn't necessarily that the Cards lost. The surprise was the magnitude.
It was an unceremonious dumping from the ranks of college football's unbeaten and the Bowl Championship Series Top 10. Gone is what little presumption of respect the Cardinals had gathered with their school-record 9-0 start. Ahead is what figures to be a major "correction" in the Cards' national ranking, and a shuffling back of expectations.
It was a bleak day, and Strong couched it in bleak terms.
"I am embarrassed today for our program," Strong said.
The game was a culmination of defensive disappointment. Strong has defended has defense the past several weeks (though, can it be a good sign when one's defense itself must be defended?)
Three weeks ago, when asked repeatedly about defensive concerns, Strong told reporters: "I guess I don't see all the concerns everybody else has. You know what has happened here, a standard has been placed on this defense the past two years. . . . I tell our defense all the time, people are saying, you've got to play better, you've got to play better, and we do have to play better. But it's not like we're awful."
But on Saturday, it was like they were awful. They gave up 524 yards of offense. Syracuse converted 14 of 19 third downs.
Strong, after the game, listed the same culprits -- poor tackling, gap control, getting off blocks.
But look, everybody knew going in that this was going to be a high-scoring game. Syracuse was the best passing team U of L has faced all season. It was going to take points to win this one.
And U of L's offense, while able to move the ball, was uncharacteristically unable to produce touchdowns early. Two big third-and-short failures, along with a major special teams blunder, set the stage for what happened. On its first drive, U of L had the ball at the Syracuse 20. The Cardinals have been the most effective red zone team in college football this season. Their red-zone running game has led them to 30 touchdowns in 39 trips.
But on this third-and-two, the Cards decided to go for it all, and Teddy Bridgewater couldn't find DeVante Parker in the end zone, settling instead for a game-tying field goal. U of L then managed a 3-and-out on Syracuse' next series, but Scott Radcliff muffed a punt and Syracuse recovered to set up a TD that made it 10-3.
The Cards were tied at 10 at the end of the first quarter on a 53-yard screen pass to Corvin Lamb, in the game for the injured Senorise Perry. But they fell behind 17-10 on a 13-play, 92-yard Syracuse drive. And their ensuing drive, they moved out from their own 8-yard line to their own 33, but on 3rd and 1, Bridgewater changed the play at the line of scrimmage. The result was a play that required a guard to pull, and the slow-developing run was swallowed up by Syracuse for a four-yard loss. When Syracuse got the ball back, it needed only six plays and 2:44 to go 70 yards, and U of L was in trouble.
Once it got the lead, Syracuse cranked up the pressure on Bridgewater and stayed in attack-mode on defense.
"We were flat," Strong said. "It wasn't so much what they did but what we did to ourselves."
So now the Cards come home. Maybe the kick the pants will be a catalyst to defensive improvement. Even under heavy pressure, Bridgewater remained poised and kept making plays. He wound up throwing for 424 yards and three touchdowns. But the Cards got nothing easy on offense. And they didn't make it easy for themselves at times. After his long streak for the screen pass TD, Lamb disappeared. The Cards didn't go back to him.
Strong said it -- his team looked unfocused and undisciplined. Now we'll see if this kick in the pants serves as a catalyst for change. The fact is, no matter how far the Cards drop in the ratings, they still have quite a bit in front of them if they can rebound for their final two games. For what is essentially still a very young team, a pivotal bye week and stretch run awaits, with a Bowl Championship Series bid still within its grasp.
With this in mind, Strong said that after the game he didn't rant or rave much.
"I don't have to say anything," Strong said. "They see it. They feel it themselves."
And they can hear the warning whistles, like a train rumbling on up the track.