Following that loss, John L. Smith's last team never fully recovered and limped home with a disappointing 7-6 record following a thumping embarrassment to Marshall in the Mobile Bowl last December. Despite upsetting then fourth ranked Florida State, the Cards struggled offensively behind an inexperienced line and lack of a running game and never came together as a team, often hurting themselves with costly penalties and fundamental mistakes that resulted in unexpected losses to less talented teams.
Enter Head Coach Bobby Petrino.
Coach Petrino (ITV)
While most expected this group of Cardinals to struggle early, considering the struggles of last season and key losses of quarterback Dave Ragone, defensive end Dewayne White and three other starters to the NFL Draft, Coach Petrino's bunch have proven they're ready to contend for a third Conference USA Title in four seasons.
Gone are the unecessary penalties that cost the Cards severely last season. Discipline is no longer optionary, on or off the field. The fundamental mistakes are history and the ground game behind emerging star Eric Shelton has out muscled two BCS programs in the fourth quarter. The defense, despite losing several talented starters, has been effective and has forced turnovers that first year starter Stefan LeFors and the U of L offense have often capitalized upon.
Through two games, Coach Petrino's squad has committed just 9 penalties for a meager 56 yards. Last season that stat might have resembled the Cards flags during ONE half of action, much less two complete games.
Eric Shelton (ITV)
But this group doesn't appear to be an early pace setter that tires down the stretch. They've actually gotten strong in the second half of both games, shutting out both the Wildcats and Orange (17-0) in the fourth quarter.
The reason for the late game strength? There are probably several explanations but Eric Shelton would be the answer most folks would give.
Shelton has dominated the last quarter in both games, scoring from 22 yards out against UK to give the Cards a 33-24 lead early in the fourth quarter in Lexington after the Cats had cut the Cards lead to two, then finished off a tired and weary foe with an eight minute march that resulted in the Cards final points. Saturday in Syracuse, Shelton once again hurt the opponent with his bruising style, controlling the clock and protecting the lead late in the game. Through two games, Shelton has rushed for 289 yards and appears well on his way to the 1,000 yard mark this season.
Shelton has led a balanced attack that is averaging 435 yards of total offense, 212 yards coming on the ground and have put 35 points on the board per game. Stefan LeFors has been solid, if not spectacular, completing 30-48 passes for 446 yards with four touchdowns and only two INT's. The line has protected well, allowing just one sack of LeFors and have opened holes for the Cards ground attack. The AFROS, J.R. Russell, Joshua Tinch and Broderick Clark, have rejuvenated the UofL aerial assault and are becoming a feared group to defend.
Rod Day (ITV)
The Cardinal "D," has been a bend but don't break unit and have created several timely turnovers, none more important than Josh Minkins' goal line interception that set up the Cards clinching touchdown in Lexington. Through two games, the Cards have forced four turnovers, intercepted two passes and recovered two fumbles. They've also applied steady and effective pressure to opposing quarterbacks.
The Special Teams have come up big too. Kicker Nate Smith is perfect on the young season, nailing 4-4 field goals, including three against Syracuse with a long of 48 yards. Broderick Clark continues to rank among the best return men in the game, returning four kicks for 129 yards against Syracuse. The Cards also blocked a punt against Kentucky that Jonathan Jackerson recovered for a touchdown and recorded a safety off a botched punt snap later against the Cats. And freshman punter Brent Moody came up big against Syracuse in Wade Tydlacka's place, booming 3 punts for a 47 yard average under the Carrier Dome roof on Saturday.
With home games against UTEP and Temple coming up, the Cards have a great opportunity to take a 4-0 record to Tampa to face South Florida on October 4. Who knows what will happen after that but these Cards could be in store for an unexpected and magical season in 2003.