CRAWFORD | What happened with Louisville football at the end of - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | What happened with Louisville football at the end of this season?

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WDRB photo by Eric Crawford WDRB photo by Eric Crawford

ORLANDO, Fla. (WDRB) — So what happened to these guys? One minute, the University of Louisville football team was 9-1, a playoff contender, multiple star of ESPN’s College GameDay with a Heisman front-running Sports Illustrated cover quarterback.

The next, head coach Bobby Petrino is answering questions about where his team lost its edge, and a 29-9 Citrus Bowl loss to LSU in which it had more made field goals (3) than third-down conversions (2).

There are plenty of theories on what happened to the Cardinals’ football team. Did it simply face better competition at the end of the season? Yes and no. Did it lose steam? Some. Did opponents figure out Lamar Jackson or did he just run up against a better class of athlete on the other side of the line of scrimmage? Yes and yes.

But all of that, if you’re asking my opinion — and you’re reading my column, so you must be — began with what happened at Houston. In some ways, the Cardinals never recovered from that 36-10 loss to the Cougars on a Thursday night ESPN telecast.

The emotional air started going out of the balloon after that loss. So much had been put on that game, and on the team’s playoff chances, that for a program not used to that situation, that was it.

Once the balloon started descending, Petrino couldn’t pump enough heat back into it to keep it into the air. The basket got too heavy with doubt, with distraction, and that was it.

There are some spins you can’t pull out of.

Fans don’t like hearing that. Some programs are used to it. Some know the drill. Some have enough talent that it doesn’t matter — which likely is the biggest key of all.

Louisville had none of those things.

If there had been a bit more talent, maybe the Cardinals could’ve avoided what happened in Houston. But I’m not sure. 

Let’s go back, because Petrino went back there Saturday. To his credit, his postgame news conference in a losing effort at Houston referred to none of these things. He gave Houston all the credit. He praised the Cougars and their coaches and their preparation.

But he knew, and anyone who knows the game knows, against a good team, if you play a Saturday night prime-time conference game — which is the first time the ACC and ESPN have asked Louisville to do that — and have to turn around and travel on a Wednesday for a road game Thursday night, the odds against you are long.

A lot of us assumed that Louisville had enough talent to overcome those things. We thought Lamar Jackson’s legs could run past that kind of obstacle.

We learned better.

“We got out of the -- into the locker room I think it was 10:45 p.m. on Saturday night and had to travel and play the next Thursday night, so some of that being fatigued and tired, but also being able to handle success,” Petrino said. “You've got to learn how to handle success. You've got to learn how to keep going, even when you're tired. You prepare hard and do things right. We talk about that to our players all the time. 6 a.m. in the morning, the alarm goes off, I don't feel good. I'm still going to get up and go to work and to a great job at work so I can feed my family. We didn’t answer that alarm very well.”

Coming off the emotional letdown of losing that game, the Cardinals did a hundred little things wrong in a 41-38 loss to Kentucky. The Wildcats came into the game ready to play, motivated to beat a nationally ranked rival on the road. The Cardinals were flat. The rivalry didn’t seem to mean a great deal to them. Even so, they should’ve had enough talent to win the game. They were driving for the winning score when Jackson fumbled, and UK responded with a game-winning drive and field goal.

If the Cardinals had won that game, but lost just the games to Houston and LSU, I think some of the angst among fans would be muted. But they didn’t. And it hasn’t been.

This season, in the end, will be remembered for Jackson’s Heisman Trophy. That was as unlikely a thing as I may ever experience in sports — a Louisville player winning the most-recognized award in college sports.

Louisville’s time in the limelight this season is of inestimable value to the program. The Cardinals were welcomed to life in the mainstream of college football. They got the national TV treatment. They were discussed on Jimmy Fallon’s show.

For once, a program that has spent its entire existence as an underdog, an outcast, in the off-brand conference or playing weeknight games, was welcomed to the grown-up table of college football.

And it was nice. But having lost a game with the playoffs on the line, the Cardinals experienced a grown-up college football problem; namely, how to hold their car in the road once their dreams had veered off course.

Petrino called it “handling success.” Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino often says, “praise is poison.” Whatever you want to call it, life after that Houston loss was as uncharted a territory for Louisville football as life before it this season. And Louisville didn’t react well. Something was missing after that game.

“We really had it rolling there the first part of the season, and the middle part of the season,” Petrino said. “I listened to Urban Meyer talk about his team and how, in the middle of the year, they kind of hit the wall a little bit, and then they were able to come back and finish strong. We went right through the middle of the season well, but I kind of feel like we hit the wall there towards the end.”

Sometimes it's hard to put your finger on. There was definite regression. Yes, the competition was better. Houston was primed and prepared. LSU is one of the top defenses in the nation. But LSU isn’t on a different defensive universe from Florida State or Clemson. Louisville is the No. 2 team in the nation in total yardage. They averaged 3.5 yards per play against LSU and couldn’t block anybody. Receivers couldn’t get separation. Jackson didn’t make decisions as well as he did early in the year.

“We played at a very, very high level for a long time,” Petrino said. “I felt like there was 11 weeks where we were in the talk of whether we were going to get into the playoffs or not get into the playoffs. Then, we didn't finish the season the way that we should have or normally do. I think that one thing that we all need to learn from it is there's a saying out there that says one of the greatest obstacles to being great is being good. And it's my fault. I saw us not working and practicing and having the same intensity that we needed in the last three games. And we’ve got to do a better job and we're certainly going to spend a lot of time evaluating and trying to do the best we can to never see it happen again.”

What reporters — and fans — wanted to know was why. Why did Petrino think that the work ethic or intensity wasn’t there. Fans assumed a loss would motivate the team. Heck, it motivated them. But players aren’t fans. And fans don’t take into account how much these players put into it, and the effect even a single loss can have on a player, or on a team.

“That's something that we need to spend a lot of time evaluating, but I think some of it is just the ability to go from being good to great and, obviously, understanding how to prepare for the game and go out and compete in the game and, like I said, that's on me,” Petrino said.

What he means is only he really knows how he coached these guys after the Houston game. Only he, really, can say whether he broke them down or built them up. And let’s face it, this situation was new for him. It’s not like he’s been coaching Heisman candidates at quarterback every season.

The football problems can be addressed. Petrino can look at video and tell you exactly where the offensive line broke down and why (and it’s not even always the line, but somewhere else).

“We took our turn, not getting the job done, whether it was of the protection, the throw, the dropped pass, whatever it was,” Petrino said.

What’s tougher is gauging the team’s psychology. It’s easy to say that a loss automatically fires a team or a player up, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes losses are deflating. Now, this program has absorbed three losses to end the season.

Before the loss to LSU, I noticed this, and after the game a couple of other reporters remarked on it too. LSU took the field and charged out of the tunnel and onto its sideline in a fired-up mass. Louisville had a group of players charge out of the tunnel, followed by another group, followed by a single file line, followed by some stragglers at the end. I don’t know if that matters, or means anything, but it’s an interesting picture of this team at the end of the season.

If ever a team has a chance to be motivated by negative input, it will be this one in the offseason. People are jumping off the Louisville bandwagon as quickly as they jumped on it. Just watch. Lamar Jackson may be as second-guessed as any Heisman winner since Jason White (the last one to lose to LSU in a bowl game). If “disrespect” is what motivates these guys, they’ll be awfully motivated by fall.

But Petrino couldn’t say, decisively, on Saturday.

“I hope it motivates us,” he said. “I know we have a lot of guys coming back, guys that are great competitors and talented and believe in the University of Louisville and what we're doing. So I think it'll motivate us. It'll pull us together, and we'll have guys step up and lead and go have a great offseason. . . . These guys are great competitors, and they believe in each other. We're going to miss our senior class. Those guys did a great job for us and we feel like we're losing part of our family, but I know we'll be back and come back and play like we know how.”

You can say what you want about distractions. About bad karma. About Wakeyleaks and players getting shot and whatever else. I don’t know how much those weigh on players. I suspect not as much as we probably think — though Louisville’s defensive injuries had a real impact at the end of the season.

And it must be said, while this was a talented football team, it wasn’t a deep football team. It was ranked No. 19 in the preseason. Was it one of the top five teams in the nation, from a standpoint of talent? No. It wasn’t. Let’s be honest. You are what your record says you are. Even so, Louisville did not play as well at the end of the season as it did at the beginning. This is a fact. 

So Petrino will have a lot of things to study in the offseason, which is in some ways a fortuitous thing, because Petrino likes to study the game. He’d probably rather not have to review some of his own shortcomings in all this, but that is part of it, and he has said as much. It’s not that the guy who was an offensive genius in September had forgotten everything he ever knew by November. But he is going to have to figure some things about about his team. He has no problem acknowledging that.

If you’re a Louisville football fan and you’re looking for hope, you could do worse than look at kicker Blanton Creque. You know, the Louisville player all over social media for being steamrolled by LSU running back Derrius Guice on a kickoff return Saturday. What you also need to notice about that play is that Guice, one of the nation’s best running back who had a 50-yard head of steam, did not run over Creque and score a touchdown. He ran into the kicker and out of bounds.

Creque knew there would be a price to pay, but he did pay it, and didn’t care what it was going to look like. After the game, on Twitter, he attached a copy of the highlight making the rounds and Tweeted it out with three words, “I Am Alive.”

So is Louisville football, even if its bandwagon has slowed, and its doubters have returned.

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