"I told our team, you're in a conference race now, so you have be competitive each week and make sure we maintain our focus," U of L head coach Charlie Strong said following the Cardinals 27-25 win over South Florida. "We can't go into a game thinking that because a team is 2-4 that they're not going to come and play as hard. That's a good lesson for us. South Florida came in here wanting to win this football game and we were able to answer at the end."
Despite getting off to a slow start in the first quarter, allowing visiting South Florida to take an early 3-0 advantage, Louisville produced a first half start which appeared to put the Cardinals in control. Leading 14-3 at the break and receiving the ball to begin the second half, U of L was in position to create space on the scoreboard.
The Cardinals controlled the clock, winning the time of possession battle by five minutes, during the first half. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was a perfect 11-for-11 throwing the ball and the defense held the Bulls in check.
The second half was a different story. The Bulls found their running game and continued to stifle the Cardinals ground attack. While the Bulls averaged over 5 yards per carry during the second half, they were unable to muster a few inches on four attempts late in the fourth quarter and turned the ball over on downs inside the Cardinals 1 yard line.
"That was really big, because you watch them take the ball down there and it would have made it 21-17," said Strong.
Despite what appeared to be a momentum-changing goal line stand, South Florida responded with 15 unanswered points to grab a 25-21 lead with 3:09 remaining in the game.
Trailing late in the game, Louisville's offense responded as one might expect. The Cardinals drove 75 yards on 8 plays, highlighted by a touchdown pass to Eli Rogers in the middle of the end zone for the game-winning touchdown. The defense held off a late South Florida drive to preserve the victory and keep Louisville's record untarnished.
Louisville's sophomore quarterback continued his stellar play, finishing 21-25 for 256 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Bridgewater also led the Cardinals with 74 rushing yards.
For the first time this season the U of L running game struggled. The usually tough pair of Senorise Perry and Jeremy Wright managed just 56 yards on 22 attempts. While limited in their yards, they both found the end zone once.
U of L's receivers continue to perform well. Eli Rogers late touchdown reception to give U of L it's 27-25 lead with under two minutes to play is the highlight that will be remembered, but there were a number of big catches on Saturday afternoon. Damian Copeland led the team with 5 catches for 93 yards and scored his collegiate touchdown.
The offensive line did not allow a sack on the afternoon and Bridgewater was rarely touched while in the pocket.
The goal line stand will rank among the top defensive performances in U of L football history. It's a rare feat to see a team held out of the end zone from just inches away.
"When you get in a situation like that, you tell your defensive linemen to stay low and then let the linebackers run over the top and try to knock the ball back," Strong explained afterwards. "It was so critical to get penetration, grab legs and make sure the ball does not fall forward. Make sure to knock it back."
There were a lot of positives for the defense. The Cardinals, who registered five sacks against Pittsburgh a week earlier, recorded 4 sacks against the Bulls, led by sophomore defensive end Lorenzo Mauldin's two. Linebacker Preston Brown led the Cardinals with 17 tackles.
Reserve safety Jermaine Reve had the best outing of his young career. The redshirt freshman registered a career best 6 stops, including 2.5 for a loss and a sack. He also provided the hit of the game late in the third quarter, when he sniffed out a USF sideline pass and took the Bulls 5'5 wide receiver Derric Hopkins to the turf for a three-yard loss. However, the officials saw the play differently and called Reve for a personal foul, extending a drive that would fall short at the goal line.
The Cardinals continue to do many things well, very well. The team wouldn't be climbing in the national polls and sitting atop the Big East Conference without performing well.
Louisville is 7-0. Repeat that. Now, with that being said, twice, there are areas that continue to be of concern with this Cardinals squad. The overall play of the special teams and the inability to put teams away are a couple that quickly come to mind.
At times, it appears that the team is complacent in it's own abilities. This is a team that is young, yet loaded with talent, both offensively and defensively. It rises to the challenge and succeeds, but it doesn't do it in demanding form.
Again, the Cardinals receive a scare and come out victorious. Again, the Cardinals faced a team that it could beat by more than it did. More importantly, the Cardinals faced a new adversity and won. While U of L's margin of victories aren't winning any style points, this still developing team is gaining valuable experience that it wouldn't gain if it were easily running past it's opponents.
Louisville welcomes rival Cincinnati (5-1, 1-0) to Papa John's Cardinal Stadium on Friday night. The Bearcats have won four straight against the Cardinals and hold a 30-20-1 series advantage.