What the University of Louisville football program accomplished on Saturday afternoon are noteworthy milestones, some larger than others.
During the past two seasons the Cardinals have compiled a 21-3 record. With the win over Memphis, they set a school record for winning 10 or more games in consecutive seasons for the first time ever. Additionally, U of L came away as victors on Senior Day for the first time since 2007.
However, it wasn't the most exciting of games. The Cardinals overall performance resembled that of the fan base. Facing an opponent that is no longer a ticket-selling rival on an autumn afternoon that had the chill of an early winter morning, the somewhat ho-hum effort is a shared responsibility as the sold out crowd had at least 10,000 no-shows.
The on the field story is a similar one. A solid defensive performance coupled with an offense that creates drives when needed results in a closer than expected U of L win.
"We had our chance, we got out to a big lead, but we cannot lose our focus," said U of L head coach Charlie Strong. "We've got to continue to play, we have to finish."
The Cardinals offense outpaced the Tigers by more than 60 yards, but the 342 yards of total offense is more than 100 yards less than the team's average. An offense known for scoring early, didn't reach the end zone until after 24 minutes of first half action had expired.
DeVante Parker scored when he took a short pass from Teddy Bridgewater and used a stiff arm to break free to race 39 yards for the touchdown. It was Parker's ninth touchdown of the season, which is tied for fifth most in school history for single season effort.
The drive of the day opened the second half when the Cardinals put together a 16 play, 75 yard touchdown drive. Teddy Bridgewater was 6 of 7 for 40 yards on the drive and Dominique Brown rushed for 32 yards and had 17 yards receiving on the drive that he capped off with a 4-yard scoring run.
Bridgewater was sacked four times and the running game struggled to a 3 yards per carry average.
The defensive was stalwart for most, but not all, of the game. The Cardinals hadn't allowed a first quarter touchdown all season and they kept that streak alive against the Tigers.
Memphis was limited to just 279 yards. Tigers quarterback Paxton Lynch completed a dismal 46 percent of his pass attempts and only burned the secondary once.
After Lynch connected with Keiwone Malone for a 47-yard pass play that placed the ball at the Louisville 1-yard line, a series of stellar plays kept Memphis out of the end zone. Freshman linebacker Keith Kelsey hit Brandon Hayes for a one-yard loss. Defensive end Marcus Smith pressured Lynch out of the pocket and into a quick throw that fell incomplete. On third down, linebacker James Burgess stood Hayes up at the one. Memphis was forced to settle for an 18-yard field goal.
U of L held a commanding 24-3 lead to begin the fourth quarter, but Memphis put together a pair of touchdown drives during the final 15 minutes. A 12 play, 86-yard scoring drive to trim the lead to 24-17 with 6 minutes to play created flashbacks to the Cardinals only loss of the season.
Junior cornerback Charles Gaines continues to make big plays. The former receiver notched his fourth interception of the season during the first quarter, returning it 36 yards.
Preston Brown added another great performance to his stellar career at linebacker. The senior scored the games first touchdown when he returned a fumble 48-yards. He also led the team with 9 tackles.
John Wallace's 39-yard field goal late in the first half gave the Cardinals a 17-3 lead at the break. It was his 16th field goal of the season, the second highest single-season effort in school history. His 32 career field goals ranks fifth best in program history, trailing Art Carmody (60), Nate Smith (44), Ron Bell (36) and David Akers (34).
A roughing the kicker penalty called against Memphis when Reggis Ball collided with punter Ryan Johnson late in the game helped secure the victory.
Louisville was a three touchdown favorite, yet managed just a 7 point victory against a sub-par opponent on the final home game of the season. The victory and it's associated accomplishments should be celebrated, but, again, it wasn't the flashiest of offensive performances and the defense had a lapse in the fourth quarter.
"I told our guys this [Friday]; it's going to be a tough game, because I didn't feel the whole preparation the whole week," Strong explained. "You look at a team like that and we got them at home, and it's not like you're just going to go roll the ball out (and win). You can't do that anymore. We haven't arrived there yet guys, so let's quit thinking we are there."