CRAWFORD | Tracking Louisville's football progress through its p - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Tracking Louisville's football progress through its past 4 meetings with Marshall

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WDRB photo by Eric Crawford. WDRB photo by Eric Crawford.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- You can use any number of yardsticks by which to measure a program’s progress. For the University of Louisville football program, a good one is Marshall University.

That may seem strange. The programs don’t play every year. They haven’t shared a conference. But a look at the past four meetings between the programs -- and the one coming up at 8 p.m. Saturday in Huntington, W.Va. -- is a pretty good yardstick against which to look at the history of U of L’s program. All four, by the way, have been Marshall victories. But all seemed to have come on the edge of bigger things for Louisville's program.

Take a look, and see if you agree:

Oct. 10, 1987: Marshall 34, Louisville 31. See if this doesn’t read like a sports page from another world -- Indiana beat No. 9-ranked Ohio State on this day, 31-10. Memphis State knocked off No. 15 Alabama 13-10. Kentucky’s Mark Higgs ran for 192 yards as the Wildcats dominated Ole Miss 35-6 in front of scouts from the Independence, Peach and Sugar Bowls in Lexington. The lead stories in The Courier-Journal were from the two Major League Baseball championship series, one in Detroit, the other in San Francisco. The paper had staff writers at each.

In old Cardinal Stadium, before a crowd of 21,658, Howard Schnellenberger’s Cardinals were coming off a 65-6 loss at Southern Miss. ("I told them they're a dog football team," Schnellenberger told his guys after the seventh-worst loss in program history, "but they're my dogs." Southern Miss even tried to take it easy, removing freshman QB Brett Favre and the rest of the starters early in the second quarter.) A week later, they’d fall 32-9 at No. 4 Florida State. In his third season, Schnellenberger had a team that was still undermanned and undersized. There was grumbling, though, about how little progress seemed to have been made in those Schenellenberger seasons. At least, though, there was Marshall. They had beaten the NCAA I-AA Thundering Herd eight in a row heading into this game.

But the Herd claimed a 28-10 halftime lead. The Cards, duly chastised, came out of the locker room to score 21 straight points, the last coming with 5:28 left on a TD pass from Jay Gruden to Joey Hamilton. They had a chance to add to their 31-28 lead, but Ron Bell missed a 41-yard field goal with 1:51 left. Then Marshall completed four straight passes, to the Louisville 31.

With seven seconds left, Marshall QB Trey Peterson launched a prayer into the end zone. Marshall flanker Keith Baxter leaped up and answered it, coming down with the ball in the end zone and the clock showing 0:00.

So here was the program, nearing the end of the long climb it would make under Schnellenberger before starting to see progress. It would win just once more in 1987, but go 8-3 a season later, then 6-5, before the 10-1-1 season that culminated in the win over Alabama in the Fiesta Bowl.

Dec. 23, 1998: Marshall 48, Louisville 29 (Motor City Bowl, Pontiac, Mich.) Many were surprised Louisville even made it to this game. It was at the end of John L. Smith’s first season in Louisville. The Cardinals had gone 1-10 the year before. They’d gone winless, 0-6, in Conference USA. They had opened their brand-new stadium with a 68-34 drubbing at the hands of rival Kentucky.

But the offense, under coordinator Bobby Petrino, put together back-to-back 63-point games and won a couple of others to close the year with four straight wins to reach bowl eligibility.

In this game, Marshall and quarterback Chad Pennington came in as 3 ½-point underdogs, but lit up the Louisville defense, which seemed to pile up as many penalties -- especially personal fouls -- as big stops. It was an especially rough game for cornerback Rashad Holman, but he would go on to bigger days, as a starter in the NFL.

The season was deemed a success, even with the bowl loss. A little more than 15,000 fans made the trip to Detroit, then dashed back to get home in time for Christmas. Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich wasn’t worried about the money.

“The value is in the exposure we get,” he told The Courier-Journal. “The opportunity to be on national TV, to be able to be in a bowl game when I don’t think anybody gave us a chance.”

Once again, Louisville played Marshall and lost, but there were better things on the horizon.

Dec. 18, 2002: Marshall 38, Louisville 15 (GMAC Bowl, Mobile, Ala.) I remember staying home for this bowl game in order to cover the Louisville debut of UK transfer Marvin Stone for the basketball team. I thought it would be a bigger story. Little did I know what would happen in Alabama.

Marshall and quarterback Byron Leftwich pretty well controlled the game to end a season that had begun with a 22-17 upset loss to Kentucky at home, climaxed with a 26-20 upset of No. 4-ranked Florida State, then coasted to a 5-3 Conference USA finish on fumes, with a dismal 27-10 loss at Houston in front of 11,048 fans to end the regular season.

But it was what was happening on the airwaves, and the sidelines, that everyone will remember from this one.

Early in the broadcast, word leaked out that U of L coach John L. Smith had accepted an offer to become head coach at Michigan State. Soon, parents were texting players. Word started to spread through the Louisville sidelines.

It certainly spread in the press box, where Rick Bozich and Brian Bennett were working to get details from Jurich or anyone else they could find.

In short, it was a disaster. Someone from Michigan State had leaked word. Certainly, Smith didn’t want it to get out that way. But there was nothing he could do.

That spectacle stuck in the minds of people for a while. Louisville, stepping stone program, losing its coach while playing in a bowl game. It was a difficult stigma to overcome. Smith had begun an important revitalization of the Louisville program. To continue it, Jurich would very soon tap Bobby Petrino.

Once again, Marshall caught Louisville at a low point. But much better days were to come.

Oct. 1, 2011: Marshall 17, Louisville 13. Louisville was off to a 2-1 start under Charlie Strong after finishing a surprising 7-6 the year before. There was grumbling after Florida International and receiver T.Y. Hilton beat the Cards 24-17 in Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. The enthusiasm was back after freshman QB Teddy Bridgewater led a comeback for a 24-17 upset win at Kentucky. What was at the time the third-largest crowd ever in the expanded Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, 53,267, showed up to watch the Cardinals face Marshall in what would be Bridgewater’s first career start.

They saw a Louisville team that had spent the week celebrating its win over Kentucky instead of focusing on Marshall. They saw Bridgewater throw interceptions on two of his final three passes. And they saw angry Charlie Strong, really, for the first time. At the end of the game, with Marshall taking knees to run out the clock, Strong burned his timeouts, just so the loss would sting his players more.

He was livid in the postgame news conference. He didn’t need a microphone. “We have all kinds of problems,” he said. “This program is nowhere near where it needs to be right now.”

Strong was disgusted. He also was determined. The Cardinals would lose their next two games, at North Carolina. But they were about to turn a corner. They won five of their final six games, including an upset win at No. 24-ranked West Virginia. They ended the season with a loss to N.C. State in the Belk Bowl.

But, and perhaps this sounds familiar, better times were ahead. Over the following two seasons, they would lose just two regular season games, culminating with double-digit wins over Florida in the Sugar Bowl and Miami in the Russell Athletic Bowl, their final game before beginning play in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

September 24, 2016: This time, the Cardinals are coming off one of the biggest wins in their program’s history, a 63-20 dismantling of No. 2-ranked Florida State. They are the No. 3-ranked team in the nation. Quarterback Lamar Jackson is the presumptive front-runner for the Heisman Trophy. A week after this game, they will be featured on ESPN’s College GameDay for the second time this month in an 8 p.m. ACC showdown with No. 5-ranked Clemson.

A fifth straight loss to Marshall, of course, would be one of the biggest headlines of the season in college football. But if the Cardinals can beat the Thundering Herd in this series of measuring-stick meetings, you can’t help but ask the question, might even bigger things be up ahead, once again?

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