Adam Froman's 12-yard touchdown pass to Josh Chichester with 1:24 to play, and Chris Philpott's point-after kick, gave the Cardinals a 10-9 win over Syracuse on Saturday in front of 33,223 fans at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.
The last-minute win, which ended UofL's nine-game Big East Conference losing streak, was set up by a punt return by Trent Guy - one of three big kick returns (one was called back, though) for the senior - and preserved by Andrew Robinson's interception with 1:00 remaining.
"I'm really proud of our team," UofL coach Steve Kragthorpe said. "I thought our guys showed a lot of heart and a lot of character because they continued to fight, continued to battle and found a way to win the game. That's the bottom line, we won the game. It wasn't as pretty as what we wanted it to be, but as (former NFL coach) Herm Edwards would say, ‘You play to win the game.' And we found a way to get it done today.
"Our guys stepped up and made some plays. Chi stepped up and made a huge play there at the end. I thought our defense played great all day long. I thought our special teams were really solid in the return game. I think Trent had more return yards than we had total yardage, but that was a great job on his part."
The battle for the Big East basement was what many thought it might be, and less. At least for the scoreless first half when UofL, which came in sixth in the conference in total offense and total defense, and Syracuse, which entered eighth in the Big East in total offense and total defense, combined for only 144 yards of total offense.
UofL (4-6, 1-4) would finish with only 151 yards of offense (its lowest output since a 2002 loss to Cincinnati), 117 through the air and just 34 on the ground. Froman, in his first action since the Cincinnati game, completed 9 of 18 passes with the one touchdown and one interception as he took back the starting duties for walk-on redshirt freshman Will Stein.
Redshirt freshman Darius Ashley rushed 14 times for 46 yards, while sophomore running back Victor Anderson, in his first action since the Cincinnati game, played briefly before injuring his shoulder.
The Orange (3-7, 0-5), meanwhile, rolled up 266 yards of total offense. Senior running back Delone Carter rushed 28 times for 129 yards and a touchdown, while former Duke point guard Greg Paulus completed 12 of 16 passes for 89 yards with Robinson's interception.
The difference came in the return game. UofL had five returns for 146 yards, while SU brought back five kicks for 104 yards.
"We really felt like the key to the game was holding up their gunners (on special teams)," Kragthorpe said. "We felt like we had great matchups up front with their interior guys on the punt team and if we could get their gunners held up we could really do a great job of getting the returns started. And to be honest with you (Long) out-kicked his coverage. Trent had a lot of time to diagnose where he wanted to go and we did a good job of eliminating those gunners so he could make the moves."
Guy got the Cards' off to a flying start with a 53-yard kickoff return to the Syracuse 43 to start the game. Orange kicker Rob Long made the touchdown-saving tackle. However, a pair of penalties led to Louisville wasting the field position.
The Cards' defense came up big on Syracuse's first possession when senior linebacker Chris Campa sacked Orange quarterback Greg Paulus, forcing him to fumble deep in UofL territory. Sophomore defensive end Greg Scruggs recovered for the Cards at their 35. It was the start of a career-day for Campa, who finished with a career-high 15 tackles, including two sacks and the forced fumble.
The only other time UofL had the football in Syracuse territory in the first half Froman was intercepted in the end zone on a deep pass attempt.
The rest of the first half was a stalemate of offensive ineptitude. The Cardinals tallied 39 yards of total offense (15 rushing, 24 passing) compared to the Orange's 105 yards of offense (63 rushing, 45 passing).
Both teams got their offense going a little bit more after intermission.
Syracuse took the second half kickoff and marched deep into UofL territory. The Orange's drive stalled, though, and Syracuse settled for a 42-yard field goal from Ryan Lichtenstein.
The Cards answered on their ensuing drive with a field goal of their own, a 31-yarder by Chris Philpott, but they almost had more. Five plays earlier Chichester made a spectacular one-hand grab in the end zone, which sparked a celebration that included a touchdown horn and fireworks, but it was premature. The 6-foot-9 Chichester was flagged for pass interference, an infraction that the micro-phoned official initially signaled was against Syracuse.
"I felt that I just boxed him out, using my basketball skills and gave him my back," said Chichester, who briefly played basketball for Rick Pitino's team. "They said I pushed off, but I didn't think I pushed off at all."
Syracuse pinned Louisville deep in its own territory late in the third quarter, and at the start of the fourth, that led to a short field for the Orange. Carter capped off a four-play, 30-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown run to give Syracuse a 9-3 lead with 12:58 to play. The Orange, however, botched the PAT.
Syracuse's next possession ended in a booming punt by Rob Long. Guy made an over-the-shoulder catch at his own 6, then made a spectacular 94-yard punt return for a TD. However, instant replay showed that Guy's knee had touched the ground when he fielded the kick.
UofL punted, then SU punted again. This one was another boomer, 63 yards by Long, but this time Guy fielded it cleanly and returned the kick 44 yards to the Orange 45.
"I was surprised they kicked it to me, I thought he'd kick it out of bounds, but he didn't," Guy said. "And we got a great return."
"One of the things that gets overlooked a lot when you have a depleted roster with a lot of players hurt is special teams," Syracuse coach Doug Marone said. "Just putting players on the field, using starters to make some plays, but we didn't make the plays. They did. Obviously we're disappointed with the execution of being on time. You run the ball well, but at the end of the day you don't score enough points to win the game."
The Cards tied the game four plays later when Froman threw a jump ball in the end zone to Chichester, who came down with the catch despite defensive pass interference.
"I tried to keep my hands away from him that time, so they couldn't call (pass interference)," he said. "When I turned around I saw a flag on the ground and I was like, ‘It can't be happening again!' I'm glad it was on him that time."
Syracuse had a chance to win the game, though.
Mike Jones returned Philpott's ensuing kickoff to the Orange 46. Paulus rushed 11 yards to the UofL 43, then threw an incompletion before he threw his final pass, one that was deflected then intercepted by Robinson, the converted wide receiver who has been playing cornerback. The play was upheld after an instant replay review.
"That was big," Campa said. "I was ready to get off the field. I was happy. I really didn't see it when it first happened, but when I looked at the replay it looked good. They tried to over-turn it, but Coach K stepped on the field and wouldn't get off the field."
Campa got plenty of help on defense. Senior linebacker Jon Dempsey tallied 11 tackles, while senior free safety Richard Raglin recorded a career-best nine stops (all solo).
The Cards play at South Florida at noon next Saturday before finishing their regular season Nov. 27 against Rutgers.
"We are 4-6 right now, we know if we can get these last two wins we will be bowl eligible," Guy said. "It is the Big East, no team is a pushover. Syracuse wasn't a pushover and they showed that they weren't by their play today. We are going to go out and get together a game plan and get ready to play South Florida. We are going to take it one game at a time."