Think back two years. That was when Bobby Petrino and third-ranked Louisville travelled to Rutgers late in the 2006 season looking for a win over an undefeated Scarlet Knights team that might have propelled them into the BCS championship game. Though they fell three points short that night, the Cards finished 12-1, won the Big East and went on to beat Wake Forest in the Orange Bowl.
Thursday night, Louisville suffered a 49 point loss to a 6-5 Rutgers team. Now, Louisville has lost five straight games to close out a disappointing 5-7 season –the first losing season at UofL since Ron Cooper's final season in 1997. Louisville also finished 1-6 in the Big East – marking a rapid descent from first to last in the league in two short seasons.
Since taking over for Petrino, Kragthorpe has gone 11-13 as the Louisville coach. Against Big East opposition, he has won just 4 of 14 games. Kragthorpe is also 0-2 against in-state rival Kentucky.
Now, Louisville fans want to know how Steve Kragthorpe and AD Tom Jurich plan to return Louisville to respectability and competitiveness. They want to know how long it will take for the Cardinals to climb out of the Big East cellar and once again compete for the conference title – and BCS bowl bids. What they really want to know is when will the good times return?
And that's the problem for much of the Louisville faithful – they're finding it difficult to glean hope from the current situation. Steve Kragthorpe said after Thursday's debacle in New Jersey he plans to move forward as the UofL coach. Jurich again reiterated his support. Those two now must find solutions to UofL's seemingly daunting problems.
Something is definitely broken – that's undeniable. Now a workable solution must be found and put in action - quickly.
Fans see a program that lost its last five games this season. How does Louisville get back on the winning track?
Fans see a program that is struggling on the recruiting trail and now must rely on junior college transfers to stop the bleeding. Is that a tenable solution for long-term stability?
Fans see a team that could lose its energetic and fiery defensive coordinator to one of the many open head coaching jobs around the country. What will happen to the defense if Ron English leaves?
loss to Rutgers that he's in
it for the "long haul."
Fans see a team that could only muster five wins this season despite a schedule that featured eight home games and was tailor-made for a return to the post-season. After missing bowl games in his first two seasons, how does Steve Kragthorpe plan to get Louisville back into a bowl game?
These are just a few questions on the minds of Louisville fans in the wake of Thursday's embarrassing ESPN performance.
Cardinal fans are crying out for something – some little positive nugget that will restore hope for better days. They're having a difficult time right now finding it. They are frustrated with the current situation. That's why the message boards are littered with angry posts. That's why the call-in shows are being hit up with upset callers. That's why the crowd at Louisville's last home game bolted for the gates early in the fourth quarter.
There are certainly some talented young players currently in the program. Victor Anderson and Doug Beaumont have bright futures on offense – to name two. Greg Scruggs, Dexter Heyman and Johnny Patrick could develop nicely on defense.
But depth – the kind of depth a team needs to compete with Rutgers, West Virginia, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati - is surely lacking in this Louisville program. That was never more evident than Thursday night.
The Cardinals travelled to Piscataway with just 25 defensive players. Two true freshmen who would have been better served with redshirts were forced into starting roles at cornerback and defensive end. A former walk-on helped a anchor a secondary that gave up seven touchdowns against Rutgers' Mike Teel.
Fans wonder how Kragthorpe will re-stock the Louisville program with the quality depth it will need to compete in the Big East next year and beyond. With only eight players currently verbally committed in a recruiting class that ranks No. 72 nationally, Kragthorpe appears to be hitting the junior college ranks hard.
Louisville already has one junior college prospect – cornerback Preston Pace – pledged for next season. In recent weeks, the Cardinals have brought in several JUCO players o visits from Kansas, Arizona and California. Kragthorpe appears to be looking for junior college help on the defensive line, in the secondary, at kicker and quarterback.
Who knows if the JUCO plan will work? At best, history shows that it's a hit and miss proposition. For every Deion Branch or Jon Dempsey there's a Chris White or Charles Millenbah. Some pan out, like Dempsey, and make positive contributions. Others never work out or show up at all. It's risky business for sure.
And what about the all-important quarterback position? There doesn't seem to be a Brian Brohm or Stephan LeFors or Dave Ragone or Chris Redman waiting in the wings to take over for Hunter Cantwell next season. Despite a lopsided affair, backup quarterback Matt Simms never got off the bench Thursday night. I'm not sure what that says about his chances of winning the starting job next season but it's probably not good.
The schedule also gets tougher next season. Louisville is scheduled to face Kentucky, Utah, West Virginia, Cincinnati, UConn and South Florida on the road. Louisville beat only one of those teams at home this season (UofL lost at home to Utah in 2007) and the Cardinals won just 1 of 4 road games in '08. With 8-10 starters graduating, the returning Cards have a difficult task awaiting them next season.
The off-season certainly started on a gloomy note with Thursday's lopsided loss at Rutgers. Will some glimmer of hope emerge in the coming weeks and months for Louisville fans desperately seeking it?