An offensive shootout was expected, what with the potent running attack of the Mountaineers squaring off against the deadly aerial attack of Bobby Petrino's Cardinals. Games in which teams are evenly matched on paper often come down to either defense, turnovers, and/or special teams. Thursday night, all three did their part to do in the nation's third ranked team.
The Cardinals' defense, despite giving up 540 total yards to the Mountaineer offense, turned in the game's biggest play with 12:08 remaining in the third quarter. That is when junior linebacker Malik Jackson scooped up a Steve Slaton fumble and returned it 13 yards for a Louisville touchdown.
"(The touchdown) was a huge thing," said Cardinals junior quarterback Brian Brohm. "Then the offense, defense, and special teams all got a boost and that really got the crowd going."
The Louisville defense then held the Mountaineers to a three-and-out, setting the stage for a back-breaking 40 yard punt return by redshirt freshman receiver Trent Guy. The 5'9" Charlotte, N.C. native was part of an unorthodox three man return team for the Cardinals, no doubt set up to limit the effectiveness of West Virginia's equally unique rugby punts. Guy snagged the punt seemingly off the top of his shoes, sprinted towards the Mountaineer bench, and then sped past a trio of would-be tacklers on his way to the end zone. Though there was still plenty of time remaining in the game, the outcome was - for all intents and purposes - salted away.
"The defensive touchdown and punt return touchdown were big for us," said a grinning Petrino after the game.
Though the defensive and special teams touchdowns were huge for the Cards, the play of Brohm was equally impressive. Brohm finished the game 19-26 for 359 yards and a seven yard touchdown pass to Mario Urrutia (six catches, 113 yards.) The junior from Trinity High School in Louisville showed no ill effects of a thumb injury suffered in an earlier win over Miami, which forced the 2005 Big East Offensive Player of the Year out of action for road games against Kansas State and Middle Tennessee State.
"From now on, each week is the biggest game for us," Brohm said. "If we win out, I think we deserve to play (for the national championship.) We have to keep on going and play hard because it's out of our hands...Everyone is going to love practice because we have something to work for."
To their credit, the Mountaineers did not give up after the third quarter miscues. After Guy's punt return, West Virginia marched 92 yards in 14 plays, culminating with a five yard touchdown run by quarterback Patrick White. Slaton sat out that drive, as well as the short three-play drive prior to the punt return.
"We asked him what happened (on the fumble)," head coach Rich Rodriguez said after the game. "We talked to the trainers, and he couldn't get the strength in (his hand.) Steve's a tough guy. He tried to tough it out. The reason he didn't go back in there isn't because he fumbled, it was because of why he fumbled."
Brohm and the Cardinals answered White's touchdown run with a touchdown pass to the 6'6" Urrutia. All that was left to determine was the final margin of victory for Louisville.
White would score twice more (once from five yards and once from two yards) leaving the final tally at 44-43 in favor of the home team. The sophomore signal caller finished the game 125 yards rushing on 25 carries, including the three touchdowns. The Daphne, Ala. native was effective through the air completing 13 of 22 pass attempts for 222 yards.
Slaton had a game-high 156 yards rushing on just 18 carries. The sophomore speedster scored his lone touchdown of the game on a 42 yard jaunt in the first quarter.
As good as Slaton and White were, though, the duo was not good enough to overcome multiple mistakes by the entire team.
"Against a team that's not as good (as Louisville), at their place, maybe you can overcome a couple of those critical errors," Rodriguez said. "A team like Louisville at this place - it's hard to overcome that."
Rodriguez was particularly bothered by a lack of overall production in special teams.
"I was disappointed in several phases of our special teams which we can solve," he said. "We've got a lot of work to do there."
The final play of the game was, fittingly, an eight yard quarterback sack. As White went down, so did West Virginia's national title hopes.
"It's a loss," Rodriguez said. "The sun will come up eventually. There's a lot of football left. We can still compete for a Big East championship. I'm proud of the way they competed until the end, but disappointed they didn't finish. This team hadn't lost, obviously, in a long time (fifteen games to be exact.) We've got to get back on the winning track."
The Mountaineers walked off the field with their heads hanging low as much of the Papa John's Cardinal Stadium record crowd of 43,217 began to party at midfield.
The game that had been billed as a shootout ended with the blue and gold walking wounded and heading home with their first loss of the season.