CRAWFORD | Amid struggles, Gardner keeps fighting back
Will Gardner has hit some rough stretches as he has taken over the starting quarterback job for Louisville, but one thing his coaches and teammates like is the way he has bounced back from mistakes. Now, the sophomore is helping his team bounce back from its first loss of the season.
Wednesday, September 17th 2014, 1:23 am EDT by
Thursday, September 18th 2014, 3:18 pm EDT
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Assumptions are dangerous things, and in the case of University of Louisville sophomore quarterback Will Gardner, they probably haven't helped him as as a first-year starter.
The assumptions of Gardner, based on a huge spring game against basic defense and the presence of Bobby Petrino, a proven producer of quality quarterbacks, on the Cardinal sideline, were pretty simple: That Gardner would put up big numbers, that he would manage Petrino's offense fairly effectively, that he would make mistakes but make up for those with sheer productivity and numbers.
Three games into his first season as a college starter, Gardner has completed 56 percent of his passes, averaged six yards per attempt and thrown six TD passes with two interceptions. But his passer rating of 125.06 ranks just 79th in the Football Bowl Subdivision and his yards per game (167.7) rank 93rd.
U of L as a team ranks 75th nationally in passing offense, tied with Indiana.
Of particular difficulty, third down, where the Cardinals rank 89th in FBS; they complete nearly 74 percent of their third-down passes, but have only six first downs in 15 tries to show for it. A year ago, Teddy Bridgewater was the nation's No. 2 passer on third down, with a rating of 185.31 on third down and 64 conversions in 121 attempts.
The Cards also have given up eight sacks -- ranking No. 103 nationally.
All of those numbers underscore the difficulty of stepping into a starting role and producing right away at the college level.
Yet Gardner has shown one attribute in particular that has earned him the admiration of his teammates and coaches. Even after mistakes, he has bounced back to do good things.
"I like Will a lot," U of L offensive coordinator Garrick McGee said on Monday. "He's a young player. He's only a sophomore. He hasn't played a lot of ball. I know he's been around so long and he is such a good player and has such good potential that we expect him to understand how to play like a veteran player. I like that (the offense) found a way to keep pressing forward on a day that we were not doing well at all (at Virginia). Nobody gave in. We just kept competing and trying to give ourselves a chance."
As it turns out, "moving forward" is one of Gardner's favorite phrases. And he has moved forward out of adversity before.
After losing two fumbles in his first start, he rallied the team and led the offense in a 31-13 win over Miami. At Virginia, after a pair of early interceptions, he led a comeback that saw the Cards take the lead before a special teams error cost them.
Petrino went out of his way to say that the team's offensive struggles were not all on Gardner's shoulders.
"One of the natures of being a quarterback is when things don't go well, you take the blame, you take the pressure of it," Petrino said. "But it really is all 11 guys. Part of it is our protection and our breakdowns, part of it is our routes not being where they're supposed to be at times and part of it is not getting the ball there. So when you're not executing the way you should, you see certain things show up play after play. That's why we weren't able to move the ball and get it going."
Petrino lifted Gardner in favor of true freshman Reggie Bonnafon at Virginia, but wound up going back to him. The move apparently didn't faze Gardner, who talked to the media for the first time since that loss on Monday.
"I just have to stay positive and stay behind the guys," Gardner said. "I couldn't get down on myself because that wouldn't have been good for the guys. I just needed to stay positive so we could move forward and win the game. No matter who's in I wanted to win the game."
It should be remembered, in his first college start, Gardner faced a Miami defense that after three games is ranked No. 8 in the nation.
The teams U of L has played are not elite, but they are better than the competition they've faced in the past couple of seasons.
Moreover, Gardner is working with a larger playbook than coaches used with Teddy Bridgewater during his first season.
It all adds up to a challenging transition for Gardner. But it remains his team to rally. With Bonnafon mourning the death of his father, Gardner will get the call at Florida International, and coaches are hoping he shows what he already has shown a couple of times this season -- if he encounters adversity, he responds with his best play.
"Losing is frustrating but I've got to put it behind us. We can't keep looking back," Gardner said. ". . . You can't play like I did in the first half and expect to turn it on right there in the end and win a football game."
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