LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Lamar Jackson is firmly in the discussion for the MVP award in the NFL. He's doing many of the things for the Baltimore Ravens that he did while winning the Heisman Trophy at Louisville.
If I told you before the season that Jackson would return to walk the sidelines for Louisville's game against Virginia Saturday, chances are we would have agreed that his visit would be the story of the game.
Jackson was a story. But he wasn't The Story.
The rousing revival of the Cardinals' football program under Scott Satterfield is The Story after the Cards out-toughed, out-fought and outlasted Virginia, 28-21, at soggy Cardinal Stadium.
With four games to go, you can make two arguments:
*Louisville is the best team not named Clemson in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
*Satterfield is the leader in the clubhouse for ACC Coach of the Year.
After losing nine straight to finish last season 2-10, the Cardinals improved to 5-3 overall and 3-2 in league games. I'm not certain Satterfield's wife and children expected that.
"The coaching brings out the best in you," Louisville defensive back Marlon Character said."We've just done a whole 360 from last year. We're not the same team."
"It's hard to win football games," Satterfield said. "To win three football games in the ACC is incredible ... I don't think we're good enough to blow any team out. We have to fight and claw for everything."
This one was a test of which team could tune out the nasty winds as well as the rain, which came and went and then intensified throughout the afternoon.
This was a test of which team would make the fewest mistakes and squeeze the biggest advantage from its special teams.
This one would be decided by which team would play its finest football over the final 30 minutes.
This one was about which team was ready to bloody its nose and run the football with punishing authority.
That team was Louisville, Satterfield’s team, which is officially one victory away from bowl eligibility after outscoring Virginia, 21-7, in the second half. If you're looking for some statistics to chew on, use these:
Louisville out-gained Virginia 227-78 running the football. At 5 yards per attempt, the Cards averaged exactly 2 yards per carry more than the Cavaliers.
Through seven games, Virginia had the second-best rushing defense in the ACC, limiting opponents to 96 yards per game. Nobody, not Notre Dame, not Pittsburgh, not Miami, had run for more than 157 yards on Virginia.
Javian Hawkins ran for 136 yards and two touchdowns.
"We've won three ACC games and they've all come down to the last play," Satterfield said. "We like to make it interesting for the sponsors of the ACC Network."
The Cardinals backed up their takedown of ranked and unbeaten Wake Forest by defeating a Virginia team that came to town in prime position to win the Coastal Division of the Atlantic Coast Conference, especially after Pittsburgh started the day by losing at Miami.
But you can add Virginia to a list that already included Wake and Boston College, teams that beat Louisville last season but could not defeat the tougher and more determined product that Satterfield and his staff have developed this season.
"We've got more fight and more leadership," U of L quarterback Micale Cunningham said.
"This team is much better at dealing with adversity," said defensive back Russ Yeast.
"And we fight for each other," said Hawkins. "There's lots of love."
You can argue that Louisville is the second-best team in the ACC. Certainly in the discussion with Wake Forest, Virginia and Florida State.
This game was a slog, a series of body blows, a move and counter move kind of football game. In the second half, Louisville out-gained Virginia 173-144, limiting the Cavaliers to 18 rushing yards on 14 carries.
"I thought the defense played the best they've played all year," Satterfield said.
Virginia scored first, looking every bit the team that had beaten the Cardinals the last two seasons and also made itself the favorite to win the ACC Coastal Division this season.
The Cavaliers went 60 yards in seven plays the first time they possessed the football.
Louisville did not flinch. Not one bit. The Cards tied it in two plays, the second being a pass from Cunningham that Tutu Atwell turned into a 77-yard touchdown, Louisville’s longest scoring play of the season.
Although Virginia scored next to move ahead 14-7 less than five minutes into the second quarter, the Cardinals’ defense showed significant growth from last week.
A week ago Louisville slumbered into halftime behind Clemson, 14-7, when the Tigers out-talented the Cards for a 25-yard touchdown pass in the final five seconds of the third quarter.
Not this time.
This time the Cardinals stopped at the Louisville 8 yard line when Chandler Jones intercepted a pass with 50 seconds left in the half.
The second half was different. Virginia failed to score. Louisville scored twice — first on a 2-yard run by Hawkins (who delivered more than 100 yards again), then on a 25-yard run by Cunningham and finally on a putaway 17-yard scoring run by Hawkins.
Virginia got a consolation touchdown with 21 seconds to play. But that was it -- but only after the Cavaliers recovered an onside kick and failed to score in their final three soggy plays.
"That was a huge win for us," Satterfield said. "Those guys were picked to win that side of the ACC."
The Cardinals have next Saturday off, with an extra week to prepare for the final four games of the season.
It should be an interesting push to the finish line. It would be a stretch to call the final third of the season favorable for Satterfield’s team because only the Syracuse game (Nov. 23) will be played at Cardinal Stadium.
But as of Saturday at 9 p.m., none of the four opponents — Miami, North Carolina State, Syracuse and Kentucky — had a better record than 4-3.
According to the ESPN Football Power Index, Louisville will only be favored against Syracuse. But the Cards have a win probability between 31 and 37.7 percent in the other three games.
But first an off week, before the Cardinals travel to Miami, which celebrated its best win of the season (and improved to 4-4) by winning at Pittsburgh, 16-12, Saturday.
"We're not going to focus on being bowl eligible," Satterfield said. "We're going to focus on who we're going to play."
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