CRAWFORD | Bonnafon finds spirit and will to lead Louisville to - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Bonnafon finds spirit and will to lead Louisville to win at Notre Dame

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AP Photo. AP Photo.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (WDRB) -- As the seconds clicked down in the University of Louisville's 31-28 win at Notre Dame on Saturday, Reggie Bonnafon quickly genuflected once, touching his knee to the ground, then tucked the ball away as tightly as if he were preparing for a hit near the end zone.

And he didn't let it go.

"I have it," he said after the game. "It's in my bag. I'm not letting it go. I'll have to take that up with the equipment managers."

He earned it.

Think about the year Bonnafon has had.

He became a starting quarterback for Trinity High School. He signed with his hometown program, the University of Louisville. He lost his father suddenly to heart failure this past September. A week later, he started his first college game, and won it. He led his team to another win, at Syracuse, then was pulled before a crowd of 80,000-plus at Clemson with regular starter Will Gardner back healthy.

But Gardner went down to injury again. And Saturday night in South Bend, in a stadium where only nine first-time visiting programs have walked away with a win since the building opened in 1930, Bonnafon held his team, and his emotions, in check and ended the game in Victory Formation before a crowd of 80,795.

From the time he entered the stadium, under the shadow of Touchdown Jesus, Reggie Bonnafon thought of his father Wallace. The last time he'd spoken to his father they had talked about U of L's loss at Virginia, a game in which Bonnafon had played much of the third quarter before Gardner came back to rally the team.

Notre Dame Stadium, where they talk of ghosts delivering the Irish, is no easy venue. But Bonnafon said he had a spirit of his own. Speaking of his late father, he said, "I was talking to him throughout the game."

Bonnafon started hot. He directed a 75-yard drive in 10 plays, carrying it in from 12 yards out to put U of L up 7-3. The next drive was even more impressive. Notre Dame hadn't given up a scoring drive of 80 yards or more all season. Bonnafon directed two. On his second appearance in the game, He hit Kai De La Cruz for 18 yards. Then on 3rd and 16, he lofted a beautiful post to De La Cruz for 52. He ran it in from eight yards out to put U of L up 14-3. After that, things were tougher. After hitting on 3 of his first 5 passes, he would complete only 2 of 9 to finish the half, and threw an interception.

He finished the first half as U of L's leading rusher, but the first drive of the second half was a gut-check moment. He badly overthrew tight end Gerald Christian in the flat on the first play of the half. He was sacked on the third play of the half for a loss of ten.

He came to the bench, and you might think he was flustered. By all accounts, he was not.

"He wasn't ever rattled," sophomore running back Brandon Radcliff said. "Reggie, he's always calm. He was trying to settle everybody else down."

He said he had a little help. After both his early touchdowns, he pointed to the sky, and thought of his father.

"I was getting a little emotional around the third quarter, which doesn't really happen a lot," Bonnafon said. "I could tell he was with me. At the start of the fourth quarter I got the chills too. I could feel his presence with me.”

Radcliff's running rejuvenated the Cards, and gave Bonnafon some much-needed margin for error. Late in the quarter, he threw a strike to DeVante Parker for a 21-yard TD pass, responding to a Notre Dame touchdown to put U of L back on top 24-20.

After Radcliff scored from 15 yards out, U of L led 31-20.

The finish was nerve-wracking. Bonnafon led a 55-yard drive to the Notre Dame 6. But he rushed into the line for no gain, then was sacked for a 14-yard loss and Louisville missed the ensuing field goal try that would've put the Cards up by six.

He had to watch Notre Dame's final drive from the sidelines. He watched the Irish get to the Louisville nine. Then he watched a huge DeAngelo Brown sack on second down. Then he watched a big Jermaine Reve defensive play force a fourth down. Then he watched Notre Dame's 32-yard field goal attempt sail wide right.

"I was just speechless," he said. "I was sitting there hoping something would go right for us. And it did."

After the game, U of L coach Bobby Petrino said: "I am really proud of him. Reggie is a great young man and great leader. Everybody's behind him, all his teammates are behind him and he kept his poise and just kept competing."

U of L athletic director Tom Jurich stood in the tunnel amid the celebration and said, "That kid. What he's been through. How tough is he?"

This tough -- early in the fourth quarter, with U of L driving but clinging to a three-point lead, Bonnafon looked at a fierce rush on third down and unloaded the ball, then freshman linebacker Nyles Morgan unloaded on him, launching off his feet and meeting him head-to-head as he released the ball. The flags were immediate. Morgan was ejected from the game for roughing the passer and targeting. Bonnafon got back up.

It turns out, the freshman has bounced back from worse.

"That's probably the hardest hit I had all season," Bonnafon said. "But you've got to take it for the team sometimes. . . . My parents, they raised me to take care of business when it's time to take care of business," Bonnafon said. "I just give credit to them, and my teammates and coaches."

He threw for 180 yards and a touchdown. He ran for 53 yards on four carries and two touchdowns (not counting sacks.) His day wasn't always pretty. It was always resilient. And he left the stadium, thinking about the throngs of Louisville fans who made the trip to South Bend, and one who didn't live to see the day, but no doubt was smiling.

As he walked out of the stadium gates, Louisville fans swallowed him up. They slapped his back. They shook his hands. They hugged him. And Touchdown Jesus, lit up in the night in the background, looked over it all.

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