CRAWFORD | A second look at Louisville's 'quiet' win over Duke
It was just one of those nights for the No. 7-ranked University of Louisville football team -- but the Cardinals survived. Eric Crawford takes a second look at their 24-14 win over Duke.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- It was this kind of night at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium -- the train whistle guy was getting the shakes. He was going through withdrawal. He was lunging to pull the cord and people had to hold him back.
Somebody get this guy some points. Forget style points. The Cardinals just needed some of the regular kind. They weren’t in position to be picky. I don’t know about the other Experts, but I spent all week talking about Louisville putting up Oscar-red-carpet style points, and now I was sitting here watching People of Walmart.
When we last saw the Louisville football team, it was scoring 26 points against a top-five defense at Clemson -- in the second half. In this game, there are just over six minutes to play and the Cards get the ball up 17-14. Forget style. At this point, they’d wash your windshield for some points, anything.
It's the fourth quarter of a home game and we still have to pay attention? What the heck?
Louisville coach Bobby Petrino looked like a guy making a visit to the Geek Squad with his X-box controller. “Look, I keep pushing A and B, and my quarterback doesn’t spin and run away from everybody. This thing is defective.”
Not just that, but this is Duke. It hasn’t been so long ago that Duke went to court in Frankfort, Ky., to argue that its football team was so bad that backing out of a contract to play Louisville did NOT constitute damage to Louisville. And it won. Now Louisville’s on the verge of having to obtain a protective order to safeguard its status as a Playoff Contender.
I mean, Louisville was a 34-point favorite. Lamar Jackson is the Heisman Trophy Frontrunner. This game was prime time. An ESPN audience. The last time Louisville played at home, Lee Corso was just outside the North end zone putting on the Cardinal head and doing the Tomahawk chop. Louisville beat Florida State 63-20. It went to Clemson and the GameDay guys were there again.
Crap. Where are the GameDay guys? Lee? Kirk? Can you hear me? This isn’t how it’s supposed to work.
“That was a day of work right there, and the first thing you have to do is take your hat off to Duke and their game plan,” Petrino said after the game. “They did a great job of keeping the football, shortening the game, working the clock.”
How good? These Duke guys worked the play clock like they were taking the LSAT. They used every second. Louisville had the ball for only 2:45 in the second quarter, but still ran only six fewer plays than the Blue Devils. The Cardinals were like the guy in the U-Scan line behind a person who is not, technically, sober. Duke lounged around between plays. It checked its text messages. At one point, I’m pretty sure Duke quarterback Daniel Jones ran over to Wagner’s. It was the kind of keep-away stall game that Dean Smith would’ve been proud of -- had anyone but Duke been running it.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe knows a little something about football. His team may be banged up, but he always brings a full deck in the coaching department.
“The best defense against Lamar Jackson and all of that offensive talent is for them to watch us make first downs,” Cutcliffe said.
Duke did that. In fact, 46 percent of its yardage came on third down. Louisville did its damage -- 203 of its 469 yards -- on first down.
After the game, I listened to Louisville fans on the elevator: “This was bad for our playoff hopes. What do you think we’ll do in the rankings?”
Here’s an honest answer: I don’t know. But I don’t think they decide playoff stuff in the third week of October. I don’t think your ranking after six games is set in stone. Beating Duke by 50 would’ve guaranteed nothing. But this Duke team wasn’t coming into Louisville and losing by 50. It played a good, solid, disciplined game. It was a break or two away from putting more than just a scare into Louisville.
Sometimes that happens. Sometimes the other guys play well. And then, sometimes, you’re not your best. Those nights just happen. Some nights, everything is just a little off. On third and short on the second series of the game, Louisville ran one of those Petrino specials. Play action. Jackson sold it. Duke bought it. He was standing there with the ball, and tight end Keith Towbridge was standing in the flat, wide open. Towbridge was on Floyd Street. Duke’s defense was somewhere on Fourth Street. Easy play. But Jackson held the ball a beat too long. A Duke defender broke free to pressure him, and Jackson overthrew Towbridge by several yards. The punting unit came out.
Some nights it’s like that. This was one of them. Sometimes your sophomore quarterback makes sophomore quarterback plays, even if he is the Heisman frontrunner. Sometimes your defense, ranked seventh in the nation in third-down stops, struggles on third down. Sometimes the crowd is just a little off. I wasn’t going to say anything, but the coffee in the press box was lukewarm. It happens.
This Louisville team is going to be trying to live up to its performance and statistics of the season’s first four games for the rest of the season. Some nights it will. But some? I don’t know if any team could live up to those every night.
Some nights, your quarterback is only going to go for 325 yards and two touchdowns. Some nights you’re not going to average 10 yards a play. Some nights you have to count on a defensive end like Drew Bailey, who had 11 tackles, 7 solo, 3 for a loss. The fun thing about this bunch is that in a game that likely few will remember a month from now, Jackson still had plays you can’t forget -- flicking the ball 50 yards in the air on the run for a completion, stopping in the backfield when rushed, reversing course, evading defenders and basically outrunning the entire defense to gain 19 inexplicable yards.
“Yeah, I think every season that you win games and you have a good season, there's going to be one or two games that are very close and difficult and hard,” Petrino said. “I know that from over the years there's been games you go in and you think okay this is going to be a high-scoring game, and it's a low-scoring game. Or this one's going to be a defensive thing and it ends up being both offenses score a lot of points. You never know what's going to happen until you go out and play and that's why you play the game.”
We can talk all we want about style points and running the table the rest of the way and all that. These players have to go out and do it. Perhaps we underestimate at times the roller coaster they’ve been on. They went from just one of the guys to the most popular kid in school in the course of a month. Lamar Jackson went from nearly obscure to Heisman hype and being talked about on Jimmy Fallon in about four seconds.
That Clemson game ended and in some ways, Christmas was over for these guys, and it was time to pack away the lights and get back to work. Petrino said he didn’t think his team was suffering any kind of hangover from all that, but it would be hard not to.
“I don't feel that way because I didn't see it in practice,” he said. “I thought our guys did a good job in practice and got well-prepared for the game. I like the way we went about our business yesterday at the hotel and today in the walk-through and I feel like we were ready to play. We didn't blow them out, but we did win the game.”
Petrino knows perception is always going to be a factor. You’ve got four playoff spots, a bunch of teams vying for them, little margin for error, and weekly discussion of the horse race. But here’s the fact: If Louisville plays impressively all season and wins out, I don’t think it’ll come down to what happened against Duke that determines its ultimate fate. And if it doesn’t play impressively and win out, it won’t matter anyway. Either way, the Cardinals need lots of help.
If you want to know how concerned Petrino was with style points, consider the game’s final 32 seconds. Louisville got the ball at the Duke 35. Petrino could’ve taken at least a couple of shots at the end zone. He didn’t. And he shouldn’t have. Jackson downed the ball, and that was that. Petrino knows everyone will talk about style points.
“I think that's the reality of where we're at right now,” he said. We've got to understand that, but again our objective is to go win, keep ourselves in it and I think we did that. I think we'll be all right, we've just got to go play better.”
Consider the alternative to winning. Think about what might have been.
Duke forced a 46-yard field goal attempt -- which Louisville missed -- with 1:59 left. Can you imagine if that play had stood, if Duke had gotten a game-tying field goal or worse, the questions facing Petrino after calling that reverse that lost seven yards on first down after the Cards got to the Duke 17? Whew. People always remember the play calls that don’t work. They rarely remember the ones that worked great -- but weren’t executed.
Instead, a Duke defender rolled into the leg of Louisville kicker Evan O’Hara, the Cards got the ball back, Petrino called two plays, held down on the right trigger on his X-box controller and Jackson sprinted into the end zone.
The train whistle guy, finally, could pull his cord for some of the good stuff, and Louisville survived and advanced, style points or not.
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