The Lingering Sting Of Central Florida

Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Two-hundred and fifty-two days. That's how long Louisville fans had gone without tasting a single defeat in football or men's basketball before Friday night.

You can forgive the rest of the nation if they aren't exactly weeping for us as the new work week begins.

I spent the better part of my weekend trying to think about this. Trying to remind myself of how glorious the last eight months of perfection have been. Trying to convince myself that any lingering feelings of overwhelming disappointment were the product of selfishness, or worse, the longing for an undeserved sense of entitlement that was justifiably crushed.

None of it worked.

Though the fans of programs who haven't sniffed a major bowl game appearance in years will roll their eyes, I find myself nearly as unnerved today as I was three nights ago. The reason is warranted. Friday night's loss wasn't just about the ending of a streak, it was, in my eyes, the most painful defeat in the 100-game history of Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.

I think Louisville is good. I'm convinced of it. The worst thing about Friday is that it at least temporarily validates the beliefs of those who believe the opposite (or who believe U of L doesn't deserve the distinction because of their schedule), and makes it extremely possible that the Cards will never have a chance to truly prove their worth.

Central Florida, a team I think we can all agree is pretty solid, now controls its destiny in a second half of the season where it will likely be favored to win each of its last six games. If that happens, Louisville can win it last five contests by a combined 500 points and it won't change the fact that the Knights are going to the BCS and the Cardinals aren't. Both sides knew those were the stakes heading into Friday night, and if things play out as described above, that's simply going to be the bitter pill Louisville is forced to swallow...and then deal with forever.

If U of L is kept out of the BCS, the most likely landing spot for the Cards is the Russell Athletic Bowl, a game played on Dec. 28. The Louisville basketball team will also be in action that day...against Kentucky. The thought is almost too much to stomach, but there's a very real chance that the greatest quarterback in U of L history and maybe the greatest team in U of L history will play his and its final game in a third-tier bowl on a day that will largely be overshadowed by basketball.

The thing that separates this loss from other gut-punches in recent years is that there's no guaranteed redemption moment left on the Cardinals' schedule. Even after the team lost to Syracuse (and before it even lost to Connecticut), Louisville knew that it was going to have to beat a good Rutgers team in a de facto conference championship game to earn a trip to the BCS and have a shot at making a national splash. That type of game isn't there this year.

The only outside intrigue in Louisville's last five games was going to be surrounding whether one of their remaining inferior opponents would be able to catch the Cards slipping up and ruin their perfect season and spot in the national title discussion. Now U of L fans (and players and coaches, even though they won't admit it) are going to be forced to cheer for their own team and then move on to living and and dying (figuratively) with every UCF opponent from here on out.

It's not ideal, and it didn't have to be this way.

The forgotten theme of the 2012 regular season was Louisville's inability to find a "killer instinct." Charlie Strong talked early and often during the year about his team not being able to put its collective foot on the throat simply because it wasn't used to winning. The result was that the Cards would consistently jump out to early leads against overmatched opponents, relax and let them back into the game, and then be forced to make a game-deciding play in the final minutes. The season wound up being a success, but it wasn't because of the team's discovery of a killer instinct. Even the Sugar Bowl was a game Louisville looked like it would win by three or four touchdowns but wound up making more interesting than it should have been.

That epidemic has reared its ugly head once again the past two weeks, and on Friday it proved to be deadly. I know we talked about UCF's legitimacy earlier, but this was still a game Louisville was favored to win by 14 points, and one which it led by 21 in the third quarter. With the game on the line the Cards showed an inability to defend the same two plays over and over and over. U of L's ends continued to fly past the ball carrier on UCF's read option (which was a give to Storm Johnson every time), and Blake Bortles hit square-in after square-in over the middle where there never seemed to be a single Cardinal defender in the area. The result was a Louisville team, maybe the best Louisville team, blowing a 21-point lead in a loss for the first time since 1980.

The most frustrating thing was that you knew we were the better squad better when you were watching the unraveling happen. We have the better players, and it's painfully, painfully apparent when you re-watch the game. It almost makes it more difficult to digest the fact that Central Florida won the game, and deserved to win the game. There was no questionable onside kick or bad penalty or fluke play, the Knights simply beat the Cardinals.

The next month and-a-half will tell just how costly Friday night's performance was, but if it winds up costing this Louisville team a trip to the BCS, then I think the Rutgers loss in '06 will be the only one it clearly falls behind in terms of sheer pain caused.

The Internet tends to react in extremes, and the U of L online community is no exception. For the last two days it's felt like you're not allowed to wear red in this city if you're not clamoring for multiple members of the coaching staff to be fired or typing exclamation-filled paragraphs about how the loss means nothing and you're not a true fan if you're even a little bit pissed off. As with most things, I think the healthiest existence lies somewhere in the middle.

Friday night was brutal. I question the sanity of anyone who claims to be passionate about Louisville sports and didn't go to bed Friday feeling some mixture of disappointment, depression and anger. That said, I think the dismal performances of Louisville's 2013 opponents combined with how easily the Cards walked through the first few weeks of the season made too many people (myself included) forget just how difficult it is for anyone to go 12-0, even though it was something we talked about ad nauseum this summer.

The longshot dream of a national championship and the fun of rooting against other top 10 teams (Saturday would have been a lot of fun) and bitching about lack of respect is gone, and I think it's perfectly fine to be pissed off about that. That said, letting that disenchantment consume you to the point that you can no longer enjoy the rest of the season isn't healthy. There are lots of players wearing red and white who took Louisville from a program dreaming of a bowl game appearance to a program in the national title discussion, and that demands your respect and support for another six games.

Louisville doesn't control its own destiny anymore, and it's Ok to be upset about that. The Cards do, however, control the ability to keep themselves in the BCS hunt, and being fully supportive of them from this point on doesn't mean your newfound irrational fear of red pom-poms isn't justified.

Grieving the loss of anything is healthy, but so is eventually coming back to earth and remembering everything you still have.

Go Louisville, beat South Florida.

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