Louisville's Roy Philon sacks Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova in the Cards' 24-10 win Thursday.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – In the end, this wasn't about the 26 NFL scouts stuffed into the Papa John's Cardinal Stadium press box or the style points the University of Louisville football team needed to hang on Rutgers to impress people in Alabama, Oregon or Ohio who likely will never be impressed by anything that happens in The American Conference.
It was about winning the football game.
"It was a stressful night," U of L coach Charlie Strong said after he had changed into his shorts and sandals and drove away from the football complex late Thursday night.
Strong wasn't talking about his team losing another spot in the weekly college football polls. He was talking about his team sitting only a couple of plays from losing a football game the Cardinals won, 24-10.
Louisville made the plays. Rutgers did not. That's not what the storyline was supposed to be three days before the first Bowl Championship Series rankings are posted. But that's what it was.
Down seven points in the fourth quarter, the Scarlet Knights twice had the football with a chance to tie the game and truly make all 55,168 people in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium squirm.
Strong's defense did not allow that. Interception. Interception. End of stressful night. Complete meltdown avoided.
The Cardinals played the kind of defense that would make Nick Saban brag. Rutgers ran the ball for less than a half-yard per carry. The Cardinals intercepted four of Gary Nova's erratic passes. They sacked the Rutgers quarterback eight times. They dialed down the Scarlet Knights' offense to 30 points under their season average.
U of L nearly doubled Rutgers in total offense (461 to 240) because of the wonderful work that Calvin Pryor (14 tackles), James Burgess (seven), Marcus Smith (three sacks) and the rest of the defense did.
"Our defense, they triggered it all with their play," U of L quarterback Teddy Bridgewater said. "With all the takeaways and all the sacks."
Somebody asked Bridgewater what message the Cardinals sent Thursday night?
"That we're one of the best teams in college football," he said. "That's the message, and there's nothing else to be said about it."
You don't have to be Lee Corso to say, "Not so fast, my friend." And people around the country were saying it before the game was finished.
Louisville scored 24 on a night when the Cardinals should have scored at least 34. Eight trips inside the Rutgers 35-yard line translated into three touchdowns and a field goal. There were grumbles (or more) about the way that Louisville consistently ran the football on first and second down deep in Rutgers' territory. By the second quarter, the Rutgers defense was reduced to three freshmen cornerbacks – and the Cardinals' only second-half touchdown came in the final 2-1/2 minutes.
"We left about 17 points on the field," Bridgewater said. "We should have easily put up more than 40 points tonight."
College football gurus like magazine publisher Phil Steele and ESPN Bowl Championship Series formula expert Brad Edwards didn't wait for the game to end to howl.
"The odds for Louisville to reach the BCS title game were long already," Edwards tweeted. "But this is killing any voter support they had."
"L'ville does not look like a national title contender tonight." That was Steele's message.
I'm certain there were others – and that there will be more. I'm also certain the Louisville players are tired of all the drama about the schedule and their deserved place in the college football universe.
"That's completely out of our hands," U of L offensive lineman Jake Smith said. "We're just going to come out and keep playing football."
The Cardinals are learning this is the way that it works as your program ascends – the bar keeps moving. Three seasons ago the Cardinals were thrilled to win at Rutgers simply to become bowl eligible. A year ago they were ecstatic to win at Rutgers and earn a spot in the BCS-level bowl.
This time they beat Rutgers by two touchdowns and the rest of the country is going to (at best) shrug. They should shrug. Louisville needed to win by three touchdowns or more.
The beat goes on. The Cardinals were always the longest of longshots to play in the BCS championship game. They're still in position to win The American Conference and qualify for another BCS-level bowl.
They're staring at a game against a solid Central Florida team with a quarterback named Blake Bortles who will make more good plays and fewer knucklehead plays than Nova.