The first road game as the starting quarterback for University of Louisville sophomore Will Gardner started off with near perfection, but by the game ended it had changed into an afternoon of frustration.
Making his third career start, Gardner directed a 9 play, 75 yard scoring drive on the Cardinals first possession at Virginia. He completed all four of his attempts, each to a different receiver, including a 9-yard strike on 4th & 1 to tight end Charles Standberry for a touchdown on perfectly executed play action.
That success disappeared immediately following the opening drive. As a result of a number of correctable factors, Gardner struggled to complete a pass for the remainder of the first half and was eventually replaced by Reggie Bonnafon for the team's final drive of the second quarter.
After that touchdown drive, he completed just 3 of his next 16 attempts, had two intercepted, with many more being batted down at the line of scrimmage by the Cavalier defenders.
“I take the blame for that, because I have to find the throwing lanes and stand taller in the pocket, so I take the blame for that,” Gardner said on Tuesday. “I'm going to do my best to work hard this week so that doesn't happen again.”
As the Cardinals returned from the locker room to begin the second half, it was Bonnafon that would open at quarterback. Gardner remained on the sideline, yet stayed positive, supportive and focused on the game.
“I just had to stay positive and stay behind the guys,” he said. “I couldn't get down on myself because that wouldn't have been good for me, so I had to stay positive and stay behind the guys, so we could move forward and win the game no matter who's in.”
Despite the change in personnel the Cardinals continued to sputter against the talented Virginia defense. With his team facing a 20-7 deficit to start the fourth quarter, Bobby Petrino sent Gardner back into the game.
The result was back to back touchdown drives and a 21-20 lead with less than seven minutes to play. The leadership that Gardner displayed when thrust back into the game was impressive to his head coach.
“He was very intent on everything that was going on in the huddle on the sideline. He was paying good attention,” Petrino said of Gardner's time out of the action.
“The biggest credit for Will, is that when he went back on the field he played with confidence. He had poise and I thought he really competed. That was a very big positive coming out of that game – to be able to step back in there when you're down and fight back to get us in a position to win the game.”
Gardner understands the importance of the offensive success enjoyed following his return in the final quarter, but also accepts some of the blame for the team being in a come-from-behind situation.
“It's important, but at the end of the day we didn't get the 'W', so that's tough,” he said. “Those drives gave us a chance, but you can't play like I did in the first half and expect to turn it on at the end and win a football game, especially with opponents like this. We have to learn from it and put it behind us.”
Gardner described his experience at Virginia as “frustrating” and is determined to make the needed adjustments to continue his development as the Cardinals starting quarterback.
“I just had to put it behind me and move forward, and get ready for a new week,” he explained. “That's a good thing about football, it's a new game every week, so we have to put it behind you. We have a new game this week, so we have to look forward to that.”
The Cardinals travel to Miami, Fla., this weekend to face Florida International on Saturday afternoon.