LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Rutgers didn't get the upset over the University of Louisville football team in a nationally televised Thursday night game in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.
But the Scarlet Knights did significant damage. The No. 8-ranked Cardinals escaped with a 24-10 victory before a towel-waving crowd of 55,168, but not without surely suffering another hit to their national reputation, which has seen them fall two spots in the polls over the past three weeks.
The Cardinals held a high-scoring offense that averaged 40 points a game, 22nd in the NCAA, to just 10 points, Rutgers' lowest output of the season.
But offensively, there were too many miscues, uncharacteristic turnovers, and all-too-characteristic special teams meltdowns that led to the team's most anemic output of the season against a team that was giving up 27.6 points per game coming in, including 52 to both Fresno State and Southern Methodist in overtime games. Rutgers had the ball with a chance to tie in the fourth quarter. Twice.
The hard truth: The Cardinals are still undefeated, but they can likely put away the score comparisons and poll debates and be happy with trying to win the American Athletic Conference and get to a BCS bowl.
Charlie Strong said there would be days like this. He said he didn't want to hear talk of a national championship.
But he also said this week that he told his team it was the best team in America, with the expectation that the Cardinals would come out and play like it.
With 26 National Football League scouts in attendance, U of L quarterback Teddy Bridgewater did not disappoint. He took some of his biggest hits of the season, but also time and again delivered for U of L on third down after the running game failed on early downs. He wasn't his sharpest. He missed a sure touchdown to Damian Copeland in the third quarter and threw an interception in the end zone at the end of the first half when the Cards were marching easily against the Rutgers defense.
But without top receiver DeVante Parker, Bridgewater still made the game's biggest offensive plays. He evaded pressure and his passing propelled the Cardinals. He threw an interception and lost a fumble. But also completed 21 of 31 passes for 310 yards and not only held onto his lofty NFL Draft projections, but likely improved them.
In Parker's absence, Copeland led the way among receivers with eight catches for 115 yards. Senorise Perry carried 13 times for 104.
Otherwise, the night belonged to Louisville's defense. Defensive end Marcus Smith had three sacks against a team prone to giving up the sack all season.
The Knights' only touchdown was keyed by a fake field goal play after Rutgers got a short field following a turnover. U of L had a chance to call a timeout when it saw Rutgers' formation, but let the play proceed and J.T. Tartacoff hit Tyler Kroft over the middle for 26 yards to the Louisville 1-yard line.
Safety Calvin Pryor finished the game with 14 tackles, 11 unassisted, and an interception.
Louisville is a very good team. It is still, for the moment, a top 10 team, though it likely didn't show pollsters enough to move up this week. It became bowl eligible. But the overwhelming feeling is going to be of an opportunity missed.
Strong won't accept that analysis.
"This was a great team victory," he said. When asked what his team showed the nation, he said, "I think people watching would say those were two good teams."
He said before the season, he wasn't going to put that pressure on his players, and he wasn't going to apologize for winning.
It was a victory. The Cardinals players celebrated on the field after the game, ran to the student section to sing the school song.
But from the standpoint of national perception, they're not likely to hear anyone singing their praises this week. In fact, while awaiting Strong's postgame comments, the public address system in the stadium blared out the song, "Bohemian Rhapsody."
Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide, No escape from reality. Open your eyes, Look up to the skies and see, I'm just a poor boy, I need no sympathy, Because I'm easy come, easy go, Little high, little low, Any way the wind blows doesn't really matter to me, to me.
The wind didn't blow U of L's way on Thursday, but it still won by two touchdowns. The Cardinals are a long way from where they were. They're still in position to win the AAC, and to go undefeated. Those are special things in football.
But on a night when they got a national stage, there's no escape from reality: they quite likely didn't capture the nation's respect the way they'd hoped.