The University of Louisville football team didn't maul Murray State. Heck the Cardinals didn't even run away from the Racers of the Football Championship Subdivision, but they did play well enough to beat Murray State 21-9 Thursday night in their season-opener in front of 46,157 at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.
"Welp, we got a win and that's all that matters," junior quarterback Will Stein said.
Stein passed for a pair of early touchdowns to help Louisville build a 21-0 lead less than 17 minutes into the game, then helped the Cardinals hold onto that lead over the final 43 minutes. The former walk-on was 17 for 32 for 226 yards and the aforementioned two TDs in only his third career start.
"I should have played a lot better, we left a lot of points out there," Stein said. "The offense runs through the quarterback so I have to play better for this team, and especially in the weeks ahead."
Louisville didn't muster much offense after its three-TD start, so the Cards relied on their defense the rest of the way. Sophomore linebacker Preston Brown had 10.5 tackles, including nine solo stops, while senior linebacker Dexter Heyman finished with 10 total tackles and one interception.
Based on the final 43 minutes the Cardinals might have a lot to learn, but as Heyman pointed out they had a similar type of victory last season (a 23-13 triumph over FCS team Eastern Kentucky) during their 7-6 campaign.
The game began as if it was going to be a regular rout of a FCS team by an FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) squad even if the Racers, who were the preseason No. 2 pick in the Ohio Valley Conference, returned 19 starters (10 on offense, including OVC Offensive Player of the Year, quarterback Casey Brockman; and nine on defense) from last season's 6-5 team.
Despite fumbling the ball – a harbinger of things to come for the Cards - deep in Racers' territory on its first possession Louisville scored the next three times it had the ball.
The first was Stein's 4-yard TD toss to fellow Trinity alum, and junior wide receiver, Scott Radcliff that capped a 13-play, 70-yard drive. Stein went 6-for-9 for 56 yards on that drive.
UofL's defense held Murray again, and when the snap sailed over the head of Racers punter, and Butler High School graduate, Kienan Cullen, the Cards had great field position (at Murray's 13).
Senior Victor Anderson rushed for 11 yards on Louisville's first play, then 2 on the next one for the TD – his first since 2009 - as UofL increased its lead to 14-0 with 3:12 remaining in the first quarter.
The Cards' D then stopped Murray again and got the ball back at their own 19. Louisville quickly covered 81 yards in five plays thanks in part to a pair of long pass plays. The first, a 37-yard completion from Stein to redshirt freshman Michaelee Harris gave the Cards a first down at the Murray 46. Three players later Stein hooked up with true freshman DeVante Parker, who made a spectacular leaping grab for 39-yard TD.
Earlier in the week Anderson had asked Parker, the 6-foot-2, 180-pound receiver from Ballard, "You going to make a play?"
"He said, ‘Well if he puts me in,'" Anderson said, feigning a high voice, afterwards.
Parker, one of 17 Cards who saw their first collegiate action, finished with three catches for 55 yards.
Stein, who was 8-for-13 for 105 yards and a TD in the first quarter, was 3-for-3 for 82 yards on the drive. All totaled on UofL's three scoring drives Stein was 9-for-12 for 138 yards.
UofL lost some of its momentum, though, over the remainder of the half. Highly-touted freshman Teddy Bridgewater relieved Stein for one series, but it ended with an interception. Sophomore Dominique Brown was also in at quarterback for an earlier series. He rushed once for 2 yards.
Three seconds before halftime Cullen hit a 30-yard field goal to make it 21-3.
The second half was sluggish, to say the least, for the Cards. After tallying 254 yards of offense in the first half against the Racers, who ranked 100 out of 117 teams in total defense (398.64 yards per game) in the FCS last season, the Cards compiled only 131 after intermission.
"It's just a tale of two halves," Louisville coach Charlie Strong said. "The first half you look at the offense and we were executing well. Defensively we played well, then the second half you get a half when there's just no rhythm, and you have to have rhythm. You have to have execution."
"They were blitzing a lot and stopping our run game," Stein said. "We had no rhythm and put ourselves in bad situations. We have to get on a better schedule, and that means getting 4 yards a play."
The Cards averaged only 3.6 yards per play in the second half behind an offensive line that featured five new starters.
"I didn't see any big-time, breakaway run, which is not what I thought we'd see," Strong said. "I wanted us to have a couple 100-yard rushers (but we didn't)."
Instead all Strong saw was 61 yards on nine carries by Anderson, the new "face" of the program to replace Bilal Powell, who averaged 117.08 rushing yards per game (11th in the FBS) last season. Meanwhile sophomore Jeremy Wright had 31 yards on 13 carries. In fact the Cards' second-leading rusher was punter Chris Philpott, whose 40-yard run in the first quarter set up UofL's first TD. Both Anderson and Wright also fumbled the ball.
"You can't put the ball on the ground, and Jeremy and I both put the ball on the ground tonight," said Anderson, whose fumble was his first in 414 career carries. "We can't do that if we want to compete in this Big East (Conference)."
For now the Cards must compete against Florida International at 7 p.m. next Friday night.
"We have to find our rhythm in the offense," Stein said. "Quarterback is a rhythmic position, and some of the throws were off target, which is on me."
"We have to improve on the offensive side of the ball in order to make steps forward in this program," Strong said. "It'll be a good matchup for us next week."