A pre-kickoff visit from Conner, the injured cornerback who suffered a broken neck last week against Rutgers, sparked the Cardinals to a 27-10 homecoming victory over visiting Syracuse in front of 44,817 – almost all of whom later gave Conner a standing ovation later – at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.
It was UofL's third straight win over the Orange, but more importantly, its second consecutive victory in the Big East since the Orange Bowl-winning season of 2006.
"It was the first complete game for our offense, defense and kicking game," Louisville coach Charlie Strong said.
Freshman quarterback Teddy Bridgewater passed for 198 yards and two first-quarter touchdowns and senior running back Vic Anderson rushed for 93 yards, including a 61-yard third-period TD sprint while Chris Philpott kicked a pair of field goals for UofL (4-4, 2-1), which rolled up 343 yards of offense. Meanwhile the Cards held Syracuse (5-3, 1-2), which gained 443 yards of offense and scored seven touchdowns in last week's 49-23 upset of then-No. 13 West Virginia, to 246 yards of offense and one meaningless fourth-quarter TD.
"I loved the way our defense played today…pressure, sacks, guys flying around," said Strong, whose team moved into a tie for second-place in the conference with the victory.
But something he enjoyed even more was the appearance of Conner, who was injured on the first play of the second quarter of the Cards' 16-14 victory over Rutgers last Friday night, at the game. Two days before Halloween the UofL coach had a treat for his squad when the Cards came back into the locker room from their pre-game warm-ups. That's when he introduced called in Conner, who had a surgical procedure to help stabilize a cervical fracture Monday.
"It was great to see him come out here today and I wanted that for the team," Strong said.
"It inspired us," Bridgewater said. "We played this game for him, we practiced for him, and everything we do is just for AC."
The Cards quickly proved that once they got on the field.
It took Louisville only four plays to each the end zone after receiving the opening kickoff.
On second-and-10 from his own 8 Bridgewater rolled out on a play-action pass and found Michaelee Harris all alone down the right sideline. Harris made the over-the-shoulder catch and was able to stay in-bounds to give UofL a first down at the Orange 48.
"I knew I was going to get it, I was just trying to staying in-bounds," said Harris, Bridgewater's former high school teammate at Miami (Fla.) Northwestern, who finished with four catches for 96 yards.
Dominique Brown gained six yards on the next play before Bridgewater threw a bullet to fellow freshman DeVante Parker, who was being single-covered on the left side of the field by an Orange defensive back who had his back to Bridgewater. The Ballard freshman caught the ball around the 20 and sprinted the rest of the way for a 42-yard touchdown.
The Cards scored again on their second possession, when Bridgewater connected with a wide-open Harris once for a 34-yard TD pass, but this one didn't count thanks to a holding penalty. Two plays later Brown fumbled the ball after taking a swing pass from Bridgewater.
Still those first two possessions set the tone for Louisville's offense.
"You like the rhythm of those first two drives, where we were very successful moving the ball, throwing the ball and guys just making plays on offense," Strong said.
The Cards continued to make plays on their third possession, and also got a little help from Syracuse coach Doug Marrone.
After holding the Orange to its second straight three-and-out possession, UofL took over at the 50 thanks to a personal foul penalty against Syracuse.
The Cards quickly moved into Orange territory and were at the 2-yard line when Jeremy Wright fumbled a handoff from Bridgewater on second-and-goal. Syracuse free safety Phillip Thomas picked up the loose ball and started to run with it –and would've scored a sure touchdown – before it was realized the play had been whistled dead because Marrone had called a timeout.
On the next play Bridgewater hit tight end Josh Chichester with a 2-yard TD toss. That made it 14-0 with 2:36 left in the first quarter and it made Bridgewater 7-for-7 for 124 yards.
The Orange got on the scoreboard in the second quarter – on Ross Krautman's 34-yard field goal – but that was all the first-half points for Syracuse, which had 109 yards of offense (47 rushing, 62 passing) at halftime.
Meanwhile the Cards had amassed 204 yards of offense (44 rushing, 160 passing) by intermission, during which UofL basketball player Peyton Siva was named Homecoming King, taking the crown from teammate Kyle Kuric.
The third quarter was a defensive standoff before Louisville scored the first 13 points of the fourth quarter as Philpott sandwiched a pair of field goals (44 and 32 yards) around UofL's longest touchdown run of the season.
On third-and-8 from his own 37 Bridgewater took the snap and flipped an option pitch to Anderson. The senior got around the left end and sprinted to the end zone thanks in part to a big block from wideout Scott Radcliff.
The Orange added an insignificant touchdown with 1:31 left on Ryan Nassib's 20-yard pass to Jarrod West. One week after completing 24 of 32 passes for 229 yards and touchdowns Nassib completed 22 of 36 passes for a mere 162 yards and a touchdown while being sacked four times. In all Louisville had 15 tackles for loss against the Orange, who had no negative yardage plays in its victory over West Virginia. Sophomore linebacker Preston Brown led UofL with seven tackles, including a pair of sacks.
"We knew we had to get to the quarterback," Strong said. "Our defense just played excellent today. We just continue to start to grow and grow and grow."
Conner, meanwhile, continues to get better. Strong welcomed him into his post-game press conference.
"I'm happy just to be here with my team," Conner said with the game ball tucked in his arm. "I enjoyed every second of it."
"I'm just taking it day-to-day," added Conner, who said he spoke with former Rutgers player Eric LeGrand, who was paralyzed from the neck down after making a tackle in a game last year.
The Cards, meanwhile, will keep Conner in their thoughts for the rest of this year.
"We're going to play for AC from here on out," Harris said.
UofL plays at No. 25 West Virginia at noon next Saturday.