LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – This one has been on Lamar Jackson’s mind for an entire year. The late-game fumble. The disappointed fans. The malaise that accompanied the program through the offseason, into the subsequent bowl game, even into early this season, despite his Heisman Trophy triumph last December. 

There was one more gift Lamar Jackson wanted to give University of Louisville football fans. It resided in Lexington. He wanted to beat Kentucky, to bring the Governors’ Cup trophy back to the trophy room in the Howard Schnellenberger Complex, a room that needed at least two new trophy cases thanks to his career here, trophies that will get special display spots of their own in the renovated facility when it opens.

Jackson wanted one more win over Kentucky. He felt he owed Louisville fans one mistake-free, flawlessly executed game to make up for the one he coughed up in the Red Zone a year ago.

And Jackson doesn’t write checks he can’t cash. On a sparkling football Saturday in UK’s Kroger Field, Jackson put a bow on a college football career quite unlike any other in the history of the game. It wasn’t his greatest rushing or passing performance, in terms of yards. But in terms of efficiency and effectiveness, he’s rarely looked better. Louisville never punted, and never trailed, ripping the Wildcats 44-17 to finish the regular season 8-4.

PHOTO GALLERY: Louisville's win at Kentucky

Jackson, lifted from the game with just over five minutes to play and Louisville up 44-10, started slapping the hands of his offensive linemen on the sideline and smiling widely.

“It’s over, baby,” he said, a grin stretching across his entire face.

As teammates realized he was coming out of the game, they started approaching him one by one, slapping his shoulder pads, hugging him.

Jackson had run for 156 yards on 18 carries. He hadn’t run for a touchdown. But he was as happy as I’ve seen him after any win this season. He completed 15 of 21 passes for 216 yards and two touchdowns.

He ran the ball six times on third down. He gained 73 yards on those runs, and converted five of the six into first downs. He averaged 8.7 yards per carry and just over 10 yards per pass attempt.

And he did the unthinkable a couple of times. On back-to-back third downs in the third quarter, when it looked like the UK defense had him bottled up, he reversed course and escaped, carrying 15 yards for a first down on the first one and 10 yards to convert the next.

After UK pinned the Cardinals deep with a punt early in the fourth quarter, Jackson took the snap, fumbled the ball in the end zone, picked it up and took off running for 15 yards.

Louisville coach Bobby Petrino’s response: “I think he should’ve scored.”

You got the feeling Jackson could do anything he wanted. And on this day, he pretty much did.

“I can't recall defending anybody as talented as he is,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “Yeah, it's tough. As we all know, they're a good football team that's well coached, but then it's really difficult when things break down or you've got them covered or got them stopped, and he just absolutely makes you miss and gets bunches of yards. It's heartbreaking, and it is frustrating, especially with them being our rival in a heated game. He can aggravate you.”

Kentucky looked nothing if not frustrated. There were a handful of unsportsmanlike conduct penalties after a scuffle on Louisville’s first possession. Jackson ran the ball to the Kentucky one. There were some shoves, then Jones tackled Jackson to the ground.

Lamar Thomas, a former wideouts coach from Louisville now coaching the same position at UK, and a coach who was a big influence on Jackson as a young man and a high school player, worked to separate players during the scuffle, and shook Jackson’s hand as he was walking out of it. Jones saw it, and appeared on video to take issue with it, bumping his coach and saying something.

It was that kind of day for Kentucky, which seemed to come unraveled as it became evident that Louisville’s offense would not be stopped.

Louisville led 17-7 at the end of the first quarter and 31-10 at halftime.

Someone asked Louisville senior Reggie Bonnafon after the game when the offense began to feel it could do whatever it wanted against Kentucky’s defense. His answer: “During pregame warmups.”

On Louisville’s first drive of the second half, it didn’t so much march down the field as march behind a parade of personal foul penalty walk-offs. Three in a row, on consecutive plays.

“We certainly did not play with the discipline and the character that this team has,” Stoops said. “That's not acceptable. That's not okay, and I was very disappointed in that, and that needs to be addressed and improved. So that's probably the biggest disappointment.”

For Louisville, it was the third straight win after the program had its back to the wall. It had lost back-to-back games, to Boston College and Wake Forest. With a bye week coming, it was conceivable that this team might not make it to six wins. A lot of teams cash it in after a frustrating stretch like that, especially when so much was expected in the preseason.

Instead, Louisville got healthy over the bye week. Preseason All-American cornerback Jaire Alexander came back to the defense. The offense got running backs Malik Williams and Dae Williams back to 100 percent. Bonnafon came back looking quicker.

And the Cardinals rolled. It’s never too late to get things going. This team finishes the regular season at 8-4, probably a worse record than many expected. But they finish playing the kind of football they’re capable of playing.

“I think it was great leadership from within the team,” Petrino said of the past month. “You know, you got guys that really care and our great competitors like Lamar Jackson, Lukayus McNeil, Jeremy, Christian, Jaylen Smith on offense. On defense, we were able to get Jaire back, and his energy and, you know, his confidence makes everybody out there better. And Stacy (Thomas) got back health and Stacy is a really good football player. Then I thought that our defense on line really picked up their play and their pass rush. (James) Hearns had a great month.  You know, he couldn’t probably have a better month than he had in November of rushing the passer and causing turnovers. And our guys enjoyed it. They had a lot of fun out there and played together. I feel like we really grew and came together as a team.”

Kentucky got inspired play from running back Benny Snell. Louisville simply couldn’t contain him. He ran the ball 29 times for 211 yards and the Wildcats’ only two touchdowns, punctuating the second with the “L’s” down gesture of disrespect for his rivals. But Snell backed it up. Kentucky’s problem was that it got so far behind that it couldn’t dictate tempo, and had to go to the air.

Louisville was balanced. It ran for 346 yards, and threw for 216. It scored on 8 of its last 9 drives. It probably would’ve scored on the ninth, but the game ended.

In the end, Bonnafon lifted the Governor’s Cup trophy. Joined by his teammates.

“It was weird this whole season walking past the trophy cases and not seeing the Governor’s Cup in the case,” he said. “To have it back there feels really good.”

Then there was Jackson. After the game, he took a moment with Stephen Johnson, who beat him a year ago, and to whom he gave credit after that game. But he said a week ago he had circled this game, and on Saturday, he proved it.

““It meant a lot,” he said. “You know, I said it last week I was ready for them. Our whole team, we went out there and practiced. We were just executing a lot. We had perfect practices, I’ll say almost every day, and we just came out here and we showed it.”

Petrino just smiled when asked about Jackson, again. A year ago in New York, I remember him getting emotional several times when asked about him. He didn’t quite go there on Saturday, but it wouldn’t have been a long trip.

“The ultimate competitor,” Petrino said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been around someone that competes like he does and backs it up with confidence and is so humble. You know, he is the most humble guy. Even last week’s game, watching them at the Syracuse game, he was on the sideline cheering and encouraging every guy out there after he came off the field. So he’s just the greatest teammate and greatest kid in the world.”

“To me,” Petrino said a bit later, “he is the best player that you’re ever going to see. His ability to throw the ball, run the ball – there is nobody that has been like him and there will be . . . a while before you see somebody that’s like him again.”

It’s one thing for a player’s coaches and teammates to say those things. Stoops added this.

“You have to recognize him as last year as the best player in college football, and this year, I imagine, he'll be in New York as well, and he deserves to be there,” Stoops said. “He is a real talent.”

Whether Jackson will play in Louisville’s bowl game has yet to be determined. He says he will. But a lot can happen when players start to really think about their futures. Regardless, Jackson has done more than ever could have been expected or asked of him. His last pass of the game on Saturday was a touchdown.

Smiling for pictures with friends and opponents both after the game, I couldn’t help but think: It’s not a bad way to go out.

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