The Cardinals' offense was anemic - accounting for only three points and 171 yards - against West Virginia, which boasts the best defense in the Big East, in a 17-10 loss to the Mountaineers in front of 51,772 fans at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.
"Very disappointing loss," first-year UofL coach Charlie Strong said. "We had no execution on offense. We were just never able to get into a rhythm. They showed why they are the number four defense in the country."
It was the second straight Saturday at PJCS that Louisville narrowly missed a chance at its all-important sixth win of the season, which would make them eligible for a postseason bowl berth.
"I can't lie, it's very disappointing that we had two chances at home (and didn‘t win)," said sophomore strong-side linebacker Daniel Brown, who scored the Cards‘ only TD.
But unlike last week's 24-21 overtime loss to South Florida, UofL didn't have much of a chance after halftime. The Cards (5-6, 2-4) only had 73 yards of offense and four first downs after intermission and weren't helped by the fact that senior running back Bilal Powell - the nation's fifth-leading rusher (134.11 yards per game coming in) - only had four first-quarter carries due to illness.
"We didn't play well enough to win," said senior quarterback Justin Burke, who threw an interception with a little more than two minutes to play to end the Cards‘ chances. "Our special teams came and really played well. Our defense played spectacular, but offensively we couldn't get it done."
UofL's only offensive points came on its first possession.
After holding West Virginia (7-3, 3-2) three-and-out on its first possession the Cards quickly drove into WVU territory thanks to a pair of big passes (17 and 26 yards) from Burke to tight end Cameron Graham.
On third-and-7 from the Mountaineers' 27 Burke overthrew Andrell Smith in the end zone and Chris Philpott followed with a 43-yard field goal. The Mountaineers didn't waste any time in responding. They took their subsequent possession and drove 79 yards in 10 plays, taking a 7-3 lead after Noel Devine's 2-yard TD run. It was a score that was set up by back-to-back pass plays of 25 and 19 yards by West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith.
UofL's longest running play of the day came early in the second quarter when Philpott ran 21 yards on a fake punt when the Cards were facing fourth-and-10 from their own 34. Louisville drove to the Mountaineers' 39, but couldn't get closer.
"We were looking for a momentum change on the fake punt, but we got no points out of it," Strong said.
UofL, however, would get some points from its defense.
After a Philpott punt pinned the Mountaineers deep in their own territory (their own 15) the Cards went after Smith on first down.
"Basically down there we wanted to get in and try to do something to get the crowd back into it and get our sideline hyped," the 6-foot-1, 219-pound Brown said.
They did that.
Senior defensive end Rodney Gnat, who Strong nicknamed "Big Pretty" in the preseason, hit Smith from behind to force a fumble. After junior defensive tackle Greg Scruggs failed to pick up the ball Brown fell on it for UofL‘s first defensive TD of the season. Philpott followed with a PAT to give the Cards a 10-7 lead.
But once again Louisville's lead was short-lived.
On West Virginia's next drive, and on the heels of a Mountaineers' timeout, Smith found a wide, wide, wide open Devine along the right sideline for a 48-yard gain.
"It was man coverage, there was just a miscommunication," Brown said. "We can't have that in the future."
Ryan Clarke's 2-yard TD run on the next play made it 14-10 West Virginia 6:16 before halftime. Powell, who Strong said battled an illness during the week and was fatigued Saturday, had 0 yards on four carries at intermission. Burke, meanwhile, was 7 for 10 for 78 yards.
On the other side Smith was 7 for 11 for 120 yards, while Devine rushed 12 times for 42 yards in the first half.
The only points of the second half came on a 43-yard field goal by Tyler Bitancurt with 9:30 to play in the third quarter.
Louisville's best opportunities to score came late in the game.
With just over five minutes to play, on fourth-and-6 from the WVU 46, Burke's pass attempt hit Josh Chichester in the hands.
Chichester made up for the mistake a few minutes later, deflecting Bitancurt's 41-yard field goal try to give Louisville new life and the ball back on its 24 with just over 2:30 remaining in the game.
But on the Cards' first play after the field goal flub Burke's pass intended for Graham (who led Louisville with six catches for 95 yards) was tipped, then intercepted by Keith Tandy.
"He made a good play on it," said Burke, who finished the game 12 of 24 for 145 yards. "I probably forced it. I should have just got a positive play on the first play of the two-minute (offense)."
The Cards will try for that elusive sixth win next Friday at 11 a.m. at Rutgers in their regular-season finale.
"What they have to realize if they want to go to a bowl game they have to go win the next one," Strong said.
"We've got to go win," Burke said. "Bottom line, it's a one-game season."