While the 2010 Cardinal football schedule is not exactly the hardest we've ever faced, if there is a stretch that will truly test Charlie Strong's performance in his inaugural season, it is the last three games: USF and WVU at home and Rutgers in Snooki's backyard. I can now officially deem myself a blogger having made this reference. While there is talent on this team, there is not a lot of talented depth. The last few seasons have seen depleted secondaries and lines later in the year, and while injuries are never good, this team's fortunes is going to be especially correlated with the talent staying healthy.
Assuming the season goes anything like that of the simulated one (or, dare I say, no, I don't dare, okayfine: better) these last three games will be huge. As a recap, since I suck at posting these in any reasonable amount of time, we head into the last three games of the season 7-2 (2-2) and bowl eligible. We have likely been eliminated from the Big East championship, but 5-2 might be enough to sneak in with tiebreakers, especially since our losses have not been to the top teams. Regardless, excitement is high, praise giving freely, a virtual Era of Good Feelings has overtaken the message boards and Open Game Threads, and recruiting is going well.
Can it last? Can the Cards Finish Strong? Find out with me....after the jumpGame 10 (7-2, 2-2) - USF @ Louisville
The one streak the previous coaching staff managed to keep in tact was the South Florida home field advantage. USF has still never won in Louisville, and the Cards have never won at South Florida. With this no doubt in mind, the Bulls take an early lead behind a Schwartz 23-yard field goal soon into the first, but neither team can add any more points to the board until halfway through the 2nd, with another Schwartz field goal for a 6-0 lead. USF's defense is stout, but finally yields as Vic Anderson dives in from 1 yard out for a 7-6 lead with under 3 minutes left in the half. USF throws a pick to either Candady or Burns (both of whom had one on the day) and we get the ball back with under two minutes left in the half.
The offense can't fully capitalize, which doesn't seem like a big deal now, and takes a 10-6 lead into the locker room. USF's first drive of the second half ends like its first of he game, only this time the field goal is twice as long as Schwartz connects from 48 yards out. Both defenses hold (helped by the four interceptions thrown by Cardinal QBs - ugh) until Anderson, like last quarter, runs it in from 1 yard out with less than 2 minutes to go in the quarter to extend the lead to 17-9. The defense holds USF to another field goal, their fourth of the game, early in the 4th quarter. Only 10 minutes left to hold onto the lead, and we are sitting at 8-2, 3-2 heading into the last two games.
But the Bulls finish stronger. UofL's offense is stymied again with another interception, and USF capitalizes with a BJ Daniels 2-yard run for a touchdown. The two point conversion fails, leaving a crack in the door for a dramatic win in the last 6:30 of the game. But one of Louisville's SEVEN turnovers seals the game (that's right, 3 fumbles and 4 INTs) and the Bulls break the streak, break our hearts and dramatically alter the post-season scenarios 18-17. In retrospect, not scoring a touchdown to end the 2nd quarter was a huge deal, and would have provided enough of a margin that the ending of this game would be very different.
The stats show the story: we outgained them 307-273, had more first downs and went 3-5 on 4th down, but could not keep hold of the ball. The Cards go 3-6 in the red zone with 2 TDs and a field goal, so it is likely one, if not all, of the turnovers were in the red zone. However, the defense did a better job than the offense on this stat line, holding USF to 1 TD and 3 FGs in their 8 red zone trips. As previously alluded to, or flat out asserted, the defense did intercept USF twice. USF did most of their work on the ground, and did more work than us on the ground, rushing 48 times for 135 yards to our 34-62. I assume that's lots of option football, and combined with 7 turnovers and a close loss, make this the worst loss since UK 2007.
In the biggest twist since The Sixth Sense (spoiler alert: M. Night Shyamalan's subsequent movies are not as good as this one) the Cardinal QB with 4 INTs is none other than Justin Burke. Froman was having a heck of a game, going 17-21 with no INTs and 152 yards in the air, when apparently it was Will Stein's turn, and he went 5-10 for 37 yards. I can only speculate as to the reason, but at this point Justin Burke came in, completed 9 passes of 16 thrown. Unfortunately only 5 of those went to the guys in red, and the other 4 INTs contributed to his 10.6 QB rating and the enmity of fans everywhere (Web really does a number on him in the "So, That Sucked" thread) for basically riding solo in terms of losing this game for us. Even though it is virtual, I still feel really bad for Justin Burke. If you are reading this, and I know you aren't, keep your head up, kid. Seriously, keep your head up so you can see the entire field and not throw blindly into green jerseys. Seriously this time, don't worry about it.
USF really does a number on the run game as well, holding Vic Anderson to 36 yards on 16 attempts, with a long run of 8 yards, for a 2.2 YPC average, well below his season average. Froman fumbled twice (so he is not entirely blameless) and Will Stein actually matched Anderson in YPCs with 7 carries for 16 yards. Josh Chichester had a JETWSWEEP! go for 6 yards, hopefully the last time we run the JETSWEEP! as it is a useless play.
The defense had a good game but could not Finish Strong. Miller led the team again with 9 tackles, Heath had 8 and Tatum had 7, with a large group spreading the rest out among themselves. Canady recorded the only sack, which is not surprising with a mobile QB and a option-based attacked. BJ Daniels had 20 carries for 62 yards, so he was moving the ball a lot. When he tried to throw, he did not do well, unless you consider 14-36 with a 59.9 passer rating "well", and if you do, well, we can't be friends anymore. I'm just kidding. Will you be my friend?
Sorry, I'm just feeling a little vulnerable after that defeat snatched from the jaws of victory, and I'm nervous about our QB situation going forward. The difference between 8-2 (3-2) and 7-3 (2-3) is much bigger than just 1 game, and these are the kinds of games that we will probably lose now and again IRL. But it still sucks.
Game 11 (7-3, 2-3) - WVU @ Louisville
What better time to mount back up than against the Mountaineers of hated West Virginia. After a couple early season losses, Bill Stewart has WVU rolling, and they bring an undefeated conference record into PJCS for a big deal game, liked they used to be. And will be again. Sobbing.
Noel Devine is fast, and after 3 years in the WVU system, he has added experience to his considerable skills. He uses to both to run around, up, under, through and between Cardinal defenders for a considerable amount of yards. 4 of those came halfway through the first quarter for a TD run, and another 4 came with 1:30 left in the half for another 4 yard TD. Those Devine scores were the bread to a sandwich of Vic Anderson's meat (10 yard TD carry) and WVU's Sanders's condiments/garnish of a 32 yard TD catch. All in all, WVU leads 21-7 at half. And I'm now hungry.
Philpott brings us closer in the 3rd quarter with a 22-yarder, but WVU answers right back to extend the lead back to 14, where it remains until 11:05 in the fourth quarter when Vic Anderson scores from 1 yard out to cut it back to a 1-possession game. But the last 11:05 goes off the clock without either team scoring, and WVU remains unbeaten 24-17. It is a valiant effort, but the Cards have now dropped 2 straight to the better teams in the conference. They are not finishing Strong, but Charlie Strong has bought a heck of a lot of goodwill and has a there is not much restlessness because the defense is playing better, but just needs bodies.
Surprisingly, the offense does not turn the ball over once - considering that fact, it is not surprising that Adam Froman is back under center or in the shotgun. No, the only stat you need to know is this: time of possession is dominated by WVU 35:59 - 24:01. They do this by running the ball over and over and over. You know that old John Elway game for Nintendo? At least on my version, there was a play called "Reverse" that allowed the ball carrier to zip around the field at 100x normal speed. We had a rule: you can only use Reverse once per game. Devine broke that rule this game. He ran the ball 43 times (not a typo) for 217 yards, and overall WVU ran it 52 times for 235 yards. They turned it over twice, or this game may not have been as close. WVU also managed to convert 8-15 on third down and 1-2 on fourth down, to the Cards 6-15, 0-1.
While WVU was running all over us, Vic and company could only manage 49 yards on 34 carries, but Froman was an efficient 21-30 for 259 passing yards to give us a chance. Vic was slightly better this week with 16 carries for 50 yards, and no one else really did much - Froman's 14 carries for 1 yard looks like a result of the sack total counting towards rushing yards, which I've never understood and think I'm right that this is how it works.
The second game in a row without a touchdown pass has the same results: a loss. Doug and Josh Chichester caught a bunch of balls for a bunch of yards, but could not find the end zone. Harris continued his strong freshman season with 32 yards on 4 catches while CamGraham got his 20 yards per catch average off 2 catches. Because WVU had so many plays, the defense had a lot of tackles. Another misleading stat. More telling, and not surprising, is the lack of sacks. Terrance Simiem (my pick for IRL defensive favorite player of the season) knocked a fumble loose, but it was not enough.
Two tough games down, two losses, and a trip to Rutgers, where the last time we played....well...
Watch. Do it. It will make you feel better....
Game 12 (7-4, 2-4) - Louisville @ Rutgers
I'll be honest, I'm now dreading this game. We still are certain of going to a bowl, but at 7-5 and 2-5 in the Big East, it won't exactly be a great ending to the season that started off with so much promise. Combine that and the last two games in New Jersey and there is a sense of dread. Mike will be going through law school finals, so he won't notice. But the rest of us. Well, things are tense around here.
Things don't get better shortly into the game as Martinek runs it in from 5 yards out for a 7-0 Rutgers lead. San Te is back, and he nails the extra point. But hark, what light through yonder toll booth breaks? It is Michaelee Harris, and a 20 yard touchdown pass 45 seconds later ties the score at 7-7. Some defensive stops on both sides, and some 1 of Rutgers's 2 turnovers comes in the first half leading to a couple of Philpott field goals and a 13-7 first quarter lead.
The hope is fleeting, and leads in New Jersey are as safe as (insert Jersey Shore fight scene reference here, isn't Character X crazy/funny?!), which we are reminded of at the start of the 2nd quarter as Mr. Martinek scores from 1 yard out and that bastard Te gives Rutgers the lead 14-13. He (Te) continues to annoy by kicking a 33 yard field goal for a 17-13 Rutgers lead with 6 minutes to go until halftime. Hopes, down.
Hopes: arise! Troy Pascley makes the most of his last regular season game to snag a 36 yard TD pass from Froman for a Cardinal lead 1:30 later! And what's that? A Vic Anderson 10-yard TD run with 1:10 left in the half!? Is this happening? Yup. Well, technically no it is not happening because it is a PS3 simulation, but if you are still reading this far, well, thanks for reading this far, mom.
Halftime is long as the Cards hold a 10-point lead. We have blown leads before, though, in all shapes and sizes. But a good start to the second half always helps, and Cameron Graham The Man Himself receives a 12 yard TD pass from Adam Froman, who played a heck of a senior season, for an unlikely 34-17 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
I wonder if I can pull together a theme that is applicable to these last three games individually, but also the season as a whole and in a meta-sort of way, life. Like I wrote for Mad Men. I've got it: leading by three scores late in the fourth quarter on the road in the last game of the season, a fine season under first year coach Charlie Strong coming to a close whose last name is also a physical AND mental attribute prized in football players, with a huge difference between 8-4 and 7-5, in a place where UofL's worst ever loss ever happened in come-from ahead fashion, the question is: can the Cards win?
I feel as if I blew that. Anyway, Philpott reduces the suspense with a field goal with under 8 minutes left for a 37-17 lead, and adds another one with 2:01 left for a 40-17 hammerlock. There is much, much rejoicing, and not even a garbage TD by Rutgers can ruin things.
Charlie Strong gets a well-deserved bucket of Gatorade dumped over his head by Scruggs, Heath and Bryce Cotton, and the Cards finish strong with a 40-24 victory over hated Rutgers. Vic gets the game ball with 118 yards on 28 carries, but really, who cares about stats at this point.
A losing record in conference still means middle of the pack. That's right, a fourth place finish (ahead of Syracuse, UConn, Cinci and USF) in the Big East in Strong's first year, and an 8-4 overall record, means we are going bowling.
You're Welcome, World.
Post Script: Detroit, Michigan. December 26th. The Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. Northern Illinois Huskies. Use your imagination.
And with that, I wish a Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good non-simulated, fully realized live-action season.