On Saturday night, Louisville entered it's second consecutive road contest as an 11-point favorite against winless and old rival Southern Miss. The Cardinals featured a high-powered and balanced offense, while the Golden Eagles defense was ranked among the nation's worst. This was a game that many expected Louisville to dominate from start to finish.
Then the rains came and the field at The Rock quickly turned into a shallow, green lake. The rains never quit, they only intensified and again, proved to be nature‘s great equalizer. Any hope of an effective passing game disappeared during the first quarter and never returned.
Midway through the second quarter, the 11-point favorite found itself staring at an 11-point deficit. The Cardinals regrouped enough to pull within 17-12 at halftime and relied on an excellent second half effort by the defense to pull out a 21-17 win, the program's second straight come from behind victory.
"Those were the worst conditions I've ever played in, but it rained on both sides of the ball so you still have to be ready to play," said sophomore safety Calvin Pryor. "There are no excuses. I think it was harder for the offense, because it's hard to get a grip on the ball. With defense, we already know where we're going and everything, but still we came out and we were ready to play."
U of L's first offensive set was near flawless. The Cardinals marched 68 yards in 7 plays for game-opening touchdown drive. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater connected on all five of his pass attempts, finding four different receivers. Bridgewater found Ballard High product DaVante Parker twice, including a 29-yard touchdown pass.
As playing conditions worsened, the Louisville offense, specifically the passing game, would struggle for much of the remainder of the contest. Following the initial drive, Bridgewater only attempted 8 more for throws. The sophomore threw for a career-low 85 yards as a starter and had an interception returned for a touchdown.
The running attack fueled Louisville's scoring for the remainder of the game. The duo of Senorise Perry and Jeremy Wright combined for 202 yards. Appearing to skip across the puddles decorating the field, Perry posted a career-high 118-yards and two touchdowns. It marked the second time this season that the junior has eclipsed the century mark and the fourth time he's led the team in rushing.
Like the offense, the defense started strong and forced a fumble inside Southern Miss territory. It also forced a quick three and out on the Golden Eagles second possession, but then it seemed that the Cardinals defense forgot how to wrap up and finish tackles for the remainder of the first half.
The U of L defense allowed Southern Miss, which entered the game as one of the nation's lowest-rated offensive squads, to rack up 164 yards, all of which came on the ground, on it's next two possessions. The Golden Eagles carried the ball 17 times, for an average of 9.4 yards per carry, during that span. Both drives led to the only scoring drives allowed by the Cardinal defense.
With the exception of it's two scoring drives, USM managed just 65 rushing yards and 90 total yards for remainder of the game.
"Well you look at us in the first half, we were missing tackles," head coach Charlie Strong said afterwards. "It was almost like we were just running through tackles. We didn't do a good job with tackling in the first half."
True freshman linebacker Keith Brown was certainly the defensive star of the night. Playing in just his third college game, the former high school U.S. Army All-American seemed to be in on nearly every play and led the Cardinals with nine tackles.
Sophomore safety Calvin Pryor turned in another solid outing, registering 8 tackles. With the hosts clinging to a 17-15 advantage, Pryor's tackle of USM back Jalen Richard 5 yards deep in the backfield forced the Golden Eagles into a passing situation and set-up sophomore Deiontrez Mount's 19-yard sack of USM's Ricky Lloyd. Louisville scored it's go-ahead touchdown following the USM punt.
"When we came in the second half all of us guys talked and we were more focused," said Mount. "We just couldn't come back to Louisville with a loss."
Adrian Bushell's game-opening 25-yard kickoff return gave Louisville favorable field position to begin the game.
Sophomore punter Ryan Johnson continues to have a solid season. The Louisville DeSales product averaged 45.5 yards on four punts, landing two inside the USM 20-yard line.
Feeling the pressure of the Cardinal rush, the USM punter shanked a punt for a net of 6 yards, setting up U of L's 22-yard game-winning touchdown drive.
Despite the highlights, Louisville continues to have concerns on special teams. U of L allowed the USM kick return team to nearly run free. The Golden Eagles averaged nearly 23 yards on it's five kickoff returns, which included a long of 45-yards.
Louisville's record remains perfect and it has now won six straight against old rival Southern Miss, including three consecutive in Hattiesburg.
Despite the concerns or the questionable strength of schedule to date, this Louisville squad is finding victories while overcoming it's adversities. It's doing what it needs to do to win, even when the conditions aren't the most suitable.
"You know for us to come in and survive the conditions that we played under tonight, just speaks about our team, a resilient team," said Strong. "We talk to them about finding a way to win and we also talk to them about refusing to lose. You watched tonight the way we battled, we just refused to lose."
While the scoreboard may not indicate, Louisville may have learned more about itself against Southern Miss, than it had in it's previous outings. The offense refused to give up and remained poised and the defense displayed raw emotion and executed for much of the game.
The 19th-ranked Cardinals will have a week off to focus on improving before beginning preparations for it's Big East opener at Pittsburgh on October 13.