Cards have questions to answer

Morgantown, WV - With five games, all Big East Conference opponents, left in the regular season, Louisville has a number of questions that remain to be answered.

The game was over, right? Louisville had the game won, right? I didn't imagine that Louisville was leading host West Virginia 24-7 and completely dominating the game – on both sides of the ball – with less then nine minutes remaining in the game, right?

If I'm right, then someone please explain to me how the Cardinals held the running attack of the Mountaineers to under 100 rushing yards after three quarters, yet surrendered 281 total rushing yards for the game. If I'm right, then someone please explain to me how Petrino's high-powered offense ran and threw with relative ease through three quarters in Morgantown, yet couldn't find enough steam to at least kick a field goal in the final 20 minutes of the contest?

I am still having a hard time believing what I saw was in fact reality. Louisville, which was the Big East Conference preseason favorite, allowed it's comfortable 24-7 lead to disappear rapidly throughout the games final nine minutes and would eventually drop it's second straight league game in triple-overtime 46-44.

"We performed well during the first half, but you have to finish the game and we did not finish the game," said Cardinal head coach Bobby Petrino shortly after the loss. "We allowed them to come back and put it into overtime. It's a real hard one to swallow."

The fact is, despite all the preseason hype, which included possible national title contention, Louisville now finds itself on the outside looking in. The likelihood of playing a Bowl Championship Series bowl – while still technically possible – is out the window. The Cardinals, once a top-ten program, are no longer playing for a chance to play in the Orange, Fiesta, Sugar or Rose Bowl, but instead find themselves now playing for any post-season bowl game.

"We're 0-2 in the league right now and that's hard to swallow," said Petrino. "We certainly never imagined being like that. Now what we have to do is play for pride and play for an opportunity to get into a bowl game. That's what we are scrambling for now. We have to play hard and see if we can do that."

Question is, what happened? What is it about this Louisville squad that keeps it from playing to it's potential when on the road? How can a team playing so well, play so poorly down the stretch?

Here's a few possibilities:

1. Toughness. Louisville is not playing in Conference USA anymore and the sooner this team realizes the Big East Conference is a much more physical league then the one they are used to playing in, the better off it will be.

The Big East Conference is less than a year removed from having Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech – three teams that are now leading the ACC – so the remaining league members are quite familiar with big game atmospheres and are used to playing the underdog role against a national power.

The teams are bigger and much more physical. In fact, I have even been told that a few coaches around the refurbished Big East believe that Louisville is ‘soft'. The thought is, keep hitting them, offensively and defensively, and they are beatable.

That was the case this past Saturday. Louisville easily matched West Virginia's toughness for three quarters. However, the game of football consists of four quarters and the host Mountaineers completely dominated both sides of the line of scrimmage during the final frame on Saturday. West Virginia, undefeated in league play, scored the last six times they had the ball, while Louisville struggled for first downs, which leads me to my next thought…

2. Poor Tackling. For as good as they played through three quarters - holding WVU less than 200 yards of total offense - the Cardinal defense played even worse in the fourth quarter. Pardon the over-used analogy, but it was like hot knife going through warm butter.

"I know we did not tackle well and I know that we had some guys that did not do their assignment when it was called for them to do it," admitted Petrino following the game.

To much arm-tackling in the fourth quarter. The Red Swarm defense that performed well through much of the game disappeared. They simply stopped flying to the ball.

3. Leadership. There continues to be very little leadership present while this team is out on the field in difficult situations. To many of Petrino's extremely talented athletes are soft-spoken and just don't seem comfortable taking control of the huddle. There doesn't seem to be anyone on the field that will ‘get in the face' of their teammates to re-energize them for the next big play.

Part of that can be attributed to youth, but the season is now six games old and the importance of the WVU game should have been enough to help a few vocal leaders to arise. You could point to a number of players that should fit the part, such as Brian Brohm, Michael Bush, Montrell Jones, Brandon Johnson, William Gay and Antoine Sharp, but the truth is, leadership needs to come from more than just one player.

When playing at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, the team has sold-out crowds to help keep them motivated, but when on the road, the lack of on-the-field leadership becomes obvious.

4. Hype. Maybe both, but at least a number of the players, or some of the coaches, believed all the preseason hype that surrounded Louisville. Preseason accolades mean nothing, and they often come back to bite you if the team doesn't perform as expected. Respect has to be earned and it's clear this team wasn't ready to earn the national respect that so many were ready to give to them.

Good thing is, it's much easier to become motivated when your back is against the wall then it is when you are viewed as one of the nation's top ten programs.

5. League Pride. The remaining members of this league were not about to roll over and let a newcomer, especially one from C-USA, come in and just simply walk through the league schedule. In fact, the notion that U of L was expected by many to go unscathed in conference play probably offended the elder members.

With remaining games against Cincinnati, Rutgers, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Connecticut, it is possible that Louisville could finish the season 9-2 and possibly head to the Gator Bowl – unless part-time Big East Conference member Notre Dame snatches it – and to be honest, it wouldn't surprise me if this team did run the table the rest of they way, but to me, that wouldn't necessarily translate into a successful season.

For the 2005 season to be a success, it must ignore the league standings and national polls, and instead focus on improving overall team play, become a more physically and emotionally tougher team and most importantly, find a number of vocal leaders that can help the team continue to reach for it's goals in 2006.

To be continued on Saturday at noon in Cincinnati.

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