LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- I come not to bury the University of Louisville football team. Just to shovel a little dirt on top of it.
No, this isn't the time, and I'll tell you why.
Eight days ago, after the Cardinals struggled to pull out a 14-point win over Rutgers, was the time for criticism. They were laying claim, verbally, to being one of the best teams in America, but had not played like it.
Tonight, after losing a 21-point second-half lead to Central Florida in a 38-35 defeat, there's no point in grading on that kind of curve.
You are what the score says you are. And Louisville and Central Florida are roughly the same. Louisville has a bit more star power. But Central Florida had the better game plan, the better running game, and now the better chance of representing the American Athletic Conference in a Bowl Championship Series game.
Close the book. Don't worry so much about the BCS rankings this weekend. Pull the plug on a possible Charlie Strong live appearance on College GameDay Saturday. Now, instead of looking up in the polls and hoping someone loses to create daylight, the Cardinals are looking up in the conference standings, wondering if they'll get a shot at a second straight BCS trip.
"I just don't know how good they are but they beat us, so I guess they're pretty good," Louisville coach Charlie Strong said after watching the Knights score more points on the Cardinals in the game's final 19 1/2 minutes than they'd given up in the past four games combined.
There were plenty of strange things about this loss. A U of L defense that had been nearly airtight -- against albeit mediocre offenses -- all of a sudden could not tackle, and couldn't stop simple running plays. How simple? Central Florida coach George O'Leary said his team ran basically the same handful of plays the whole game.
"I thought the line did a great job," said O'Leary, whose team got its first win over a Top 10 opponent in program history. "We didn't try to overburden them with a lot of runs. We ran three or four plays. That's all. That was the game plan. When they put more people in there, we threw it."
U of L appeared to have control of the game after pushing out to a 28-7 lead early in the second half. Dominique Brown came out on a mission. He carried five times for 54 yards and had one catch for 11 on the Cardinals first drive of the half. Then after the defense got a stop, freshman James Quick scooped up a fumbled punt attempt and ran 30 yards for his first college touchdown. The Cardinals led 28-7 with less than eight minutes to play in the fourth quarter.
One more stop and it's over. Instead, UCF needed only six plays to drive 74 yards to stay within two touchdowns.
Despite Brown's dominance on the opening drive, Strong went with his regular running back rotation. Senorise Perry fumbled, giving UCF the ball back at the Louisville 20.
On the sideline, Brown was yelling at coaches. Michael Dyer, due up next at running back, gave up his spot in the rotation. He said Brown was running well, let him have the ball. Later, Perry would give up his turn, as well.
But the play after Perry's fumble, UCF scored. In 70 seconds, it had cut its deficit to one touchdown. By the end of the third quarter, it was tied.
UCF took its first lead of the game -- and the first lead anyone has had on Louisville all season -- with 7:36 left to play on a 34-yard Shawn Moffitt field goal. Strong could've backed the Knights up another 10 yards on third down (Moffitt's long on the season was 37 yards, and he'd not attempted one longer than that) but appeared not to want to risk giving up a big play on third and 20. At that moment, you got the feeling Strong's confidence in his defense had evaporated.
Teddy Bridgewater calmly led the Cardinals back into the lead. Nine plays, 88 yards. Brown carried it in from 15 yards out. But 3:00 remained.
UCF needed only 2:37 to score the game-winning touchdown.
After the game, Louisville players seemed a little stunned, but not overly disappointed.
Teddy Bridgewater, on whether the loss damaged the dreams U of L had for this season: "It doesn't damage them at all. We are still 6-1. This is college football and anything can happen. Anything is possible. We are going to keep our faith, keep our heads up and continue to finish the season the way we want to."
Dominique Brown said players were down in the locker room, and a few were angry, but nobody was tearful: "It's the game of football. You win some, you lose some. You can't get demoralized."
Preston Brown: "We can still win the Big East, or AAC, or whatever they call it."
Strong, meanwhile, said he'll keep throwing positive messages at his team.
"They've heard enough negative talk already," Strong said. "I just have to continue to build them up and we have to continue to move forward. They've heard enough already. We were undefeated and we still hear it. That's why I keep telling them we're the best team in college football."
But they were not the hungry team Friday night. Central Florida, in fact, looked like Louisville of a decade ago. They fought for a long time to get to a BCS league, and once in, had just one season to make the most of an automatic bid. Their players have had to listen to talk about Louisville all season. Florida guys, just like many of them, getting national publicity while they sat in the background.
This was their one shot. And they played like it. If you've watched Louisville's journey, you have to appreciate that.
A bit of irony? Nobody lobbied harder for UCF's inclusion into the Big East than Tom Jurich. He wanted them in the league years ago, and said it publicly and privately. He said UCF was a "sleeping giant." He said if you gave them BCS status, they'd become a power.
And U of L? The question now becomes how it will respond to defeat. A year ago, one loss at Syracuse turned into a second against UConn. Strong says he believes his team has matured.
But chances for an undefeated season don't come along too often. U of L may not have it teed up like it did this year for a long time, with the combination of a favorable schedule with players like Teddy Bridgewater and DeVante Parker.
Bridgewater still completed 29 of 38 passes for 341 yards and two touchdowns. He hit nine different receivers, including Eli Rogers 10 times for 95 yards. The Cards go to a struggling South Florida team next week.
But the question is what happens when they wake up in the morning and realize what they've lost. They still have plenty to play for, but not near as much as they had going into the Central Florida game.
The 100th game in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium might've been U of L's most painful loss in the building. It's probably going to hurt for a while.
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