BOZICH | Imperfect Finish Ends Louisville's Perfect Season
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Here is a question this University of Louisville football team was not supposed to research this season:
Where does the American Conference send its second-place team during the college football bowl season?
Here's another: Is there an opponent capable of scoring five times the number of points the Cardinals had been allowing through six games?
Answer One -- The Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando, Fla., on Dec. 28, the same day as the Louisville-Kentucky basketball game.
Answer Two -- Central Florida from Orlando, Fla. The Knights surged from a three-touchdown hole to defeat U of L, 38-35, Friday night, scoring 31 points in the final 20 minutes.
Undefeated season? Gone. Thoughts of playing in the BCS championship game? Gone. Chances of winning the American Conference and playing in another BCS bowl game? Not without outside assistance.
"Of course, you think about it," said Preston Brown, a Cards' linebacker. "We were undefeated. You think about the big game and all that stuff. All that's out the window now in the conference that we play in. You've got to win the conference and hopefully get to a BCS game."
This game was on cruise control. It was time for folks who enjoy beating the Floyd Street traffic crunch to flee. U of L was doing everything the Cardinals needed to do to boost their computer rankings for the first BCS standings. Look for the Cards in the Top 10. They were primed to leap the Clemson-Florida State loser. Louisville was pounding a solid Central Florida team that nobody had pounded this season.
Teddy Bridgewater, Dominique Brown, James Quick and the rest of Charlie Strong's team were making certain of that, pushing the Cardinals to a 28-7 lead midway through the third quarter. Nobody had beaten the solid Knights by more than three points all year.
And then it wasn't so easy.
Then it was debacle, a debacle that saw Louisville cough up a three-touchdown lead, go back ahead with three minutes to play and then lose in the final 23 seconds. Central Florida coach George O'Leary said his team only needed to use three or four different running plays. Louisville couldn't stop any of them.
The Cards' defense entered the game ranked first nationally in points allowed (7.3 per game), second in rushing yards allowed (68.3 yards per game) and second in total defense (229.5 yards per game). Not any more.
They exited wondering how Central Florida was able to go touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, field goal, touchdown on the Knights' final five possessions. Central Florida generated 446 yards, 196 while running the football. In the fourth quarter, the Cards couldn't stop them. In fact, the Cards could not slow the Knights down.
"It was very shocking," U of L halfback Dominique Brown said. "Our leaders in the locker room on the defense, they were pretty much mad at themselves coming around apologizing to the offense."
"We were able to run the ball down their throat and gash them," said Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles.
There won't be as much reason to look at the first set of BCS standings Sunday night. Now the Cardinals (6-1, 2-1 in the league) will need help to win the American Conference and return to a BCS bowl game. UCF (5-1, 2-0 in the league) plays four of its final six games at home. The Knights' two road games are at Temple (Nov. 16) and at SMU Dec. 7. Louisville just moved from first to fourth. The Cards still have shots at Houston and South Florida, the other 2-0 teams in the league.
But the Cards will have a lot of explaining to do about how this one got away. To lose a dogfight is one thing. To lose what appeared to be a blowout was not supposed to be in the playbook of this team.
"Any loss is difficult to take," quarterback Teddy Bridgewater said.
BRIDGEWATER UPDATE -- Teddy Bridgewater was Teddy Bridgewater – poised, proficient and productive, punishing the Central Florida defense with completion after completion after completion.
With the Cardinals behind for the first time this season in the fourth quarter, Bridgewater directed Louisville on what looked like a game-winning 88-yard drive, which was punctuated by a 15-yard touchdown run by Brown that gave the Cardinals the lead with 3 minutes left.
He finished 29 of 38 for 341 yards and two touchdowns and no interceptions.
But on this night a string of Teddy Bridgewater highlights was not enough, not when Central Florida rolled to 446 yards – and scored 31 points in the second half.
PRYOR KNOWLEDGE – Calvin Pryor, Louisville's junior safety, enjoyed another monster game. He made a soaring, one-handed interception and landed with one foot in the end zone to stop Central Florida from scoring on the Knights' first possession. It was the kind of catch that puts a guy on all-American teams. ESPN chose it as the Play of the Day.
Pryor also delivered a string of crackling hits, impressing NFL scouts in the press box. He had six tackles in the first half, only a week after Pryor made 14 tackles against Rutgers. Pryor finished with 11 tackles. He has three interceptions this season, first in The American Conference.
PARKER RETURNS – DeVante Parker, Louisville's top receiver, returned after missing the Rutgers' game with a shoulder injury.
Parker, a junior from Ballard High School, dodged a defender in the end zone to score Louisville's second touchdown, catching a 10-yarder from Bridgewater. It was not the trademark Parker catch on a fade route. He caught this pass in the middle of the end zone in traffic.
IN A RUSH – Strong was not pleased with the Cardinals' pass rush against UCF quarterback Blake Bortles. Rather than dial up an extra round of blitzes, Strong and defensive coordinator Vance Bedford added another lineman and went to a four-man rush. The Cards still never got to Bortles. They finished without a single sack.
The Cardinals never got their defensive mojo going. UCF ran the ball forcefully all night, led by Storm Johnson, who stormed to 109 yards. And when Bortles sensed the blitz he passed into spots that linebackers had vacated.
"The thing we didn't do is tackle well," Strong said. "If you look at it, we'd be right there to hold the guy, he'd break the tackle and make one guy miss and then he's down the boundary."
ROARING ATMOSPHERE – Louisville fans got the memo that the school scheduled a Red Out for Friday night and packed the stadium dressed as instructed. The deck in the south end zone was jammed from the opening kickoff.
The official count was 55,215, fourth largest in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium history.
HOMECOMING KING – Luke Hancock, the Most Outstanding Player at the 2013 NCAA Final Four, can add another honor to his resume – homecoming king. Hancock was awarded the title at halftime, topping five other candidates, including his teammate, Russ Smith. Elizabeth Delaney was voted homecoming queen.
NFL SCOUT UPDATE – If Bridgewater is playing, the pro scouts are watching. The press box seating chart listed 11 NFL scouts, including the general managers of the Minnesota Vikings and the New York Jets.
The Jets have an intriguing quarterback prospect in Geno Smith, but the Vikings are expected to start Josh Freeman, the former Kansas State star who had been released by Tampa.
Jacksonville and the New York Giants, the NFL's only 0-6 teams, were not represented.
UP NEXT – The Cardinals only have two home games remaining – and their next appearance at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium is Nov. 16 when Houston visits. Louisville plays South Florida in Tampa at noon next Saturday, followed by an off week.
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