Ouch. Following Louisville athletics is a joy ride 99% of the time. The coaches, players, and games give us great memories, role models, heroes, and an emotional distraction from our daily lives. Saturday's shocking conclusion stung, a gut wrenching defeat, and the pain will linger for quite some time. With all of its faults and mind numbing mistakes Louisville was still the better football team Saturday afternoon in Clemson, South Carolina. Getting beat by a superior opponent isn't fun, but it is acceptable. Repeatedly snatching defeat from the jaws of victory is the pure definition of misery and also the reality of this 2014 campaign.
After seven games in this roller coaster of a college football season Louisville and its fans have to be filled with a complicated mixture of sentiment. The Cardinal offense has not played up to expectations one time in 2014 and yet Louisville has been the better team in all of its matchups. Todd Grantham and the defense are largely to thank for Louisville's 5-2 record and if not for crippling mishaps on special teams and offense, Todd Grantham and the defense would be the spotlight of a top 10 team on the verge of the first ever playoff.
Louisville's defense is the best in the country, the best unit to ever play on that side of the ball in Cardinal history, and those kids are an absolute blast to watch. They are relentless and the most intimidating group I have seen in my lifetime. Their attitude is more impressive than their play. The Cardinal defense never folds, never gives up because of the offensive miscues, and convinces all of us the next play will be a sack, an interception, or a bone rattling tackle. People want to give Charlie Strong credit because he recruited most of these kids, but make no mistake that is Todd Grantham's defense and he deserves all the credit and his $1 million contract.
Everyone including our head coach is trying to figure out what is wrong with the offense, but I think it is time we all realize the brutal truth. Louisville's offense is not the talented group we believed it to be in August. Two of Louisville's three best offensive players from a year ago were drafted into the NFL. The third is the best receiver in football and has not dressed for a game. Couple that with the losses on the offensive line and the result is the product we are currently witnessing. Coach Petrino will need time to assemble his personnel and another season to install his complicated, but always effective system.
For those of you who want to credit the defense to Charlie Strong, he deserves far more credit for not recruiting well on the offensive side of the ball. The receivers Louisville suits up are solid, but they are all possession receivers. None of the wide outs have breakaway speed, jump ball ability, or the size and strength to bully opposing cornerbacks. Louisville's receivers have also dropped several game changing passes that would have at the very least built confidence into which ever quarterback was under center. The offensive line needs bodies and more importantly talent. The depth and ability to compete at a championship level simply isn't there. The running backs are great, but unless you are Barry Sanders no amount of ability in the backfield can overcome an obsolete passing attack and a vulnerable offensive line.
It also appears Charlie Strong knew he was leaving with Teddy Bridgewater from the minute Teddy arrived on campus. Coach Strong did not have a plan in place for the after-Teddy-era. Will Garnder has the tools and his performance against Clemson is encouraging, but he lost his starting spot due to poor performance and until he can manage an entire game I will keep my enthusiasm grounded. I am all in for Will as the starter moving forward. Reggie has exceptional talent, but he simply isn't ready and we all hope Will can finally settle in and manage the offense.
Louisville squandered an awesome opportunity Saturday afternoon. The Cardinals should have returned home 6-1, ranked in the top 25, and in firm control of their own destiny in pursuit of an ACC championship. Louisville should have never trailed and the Clemson game should have never come down to a spiked ball on third and goal. At one juncture Louisville was behind 14-10 and Clemson had managed a putrid eight yards of offense.
As for my take on the final sequence: the second and goal play should have been a QB sneak, there were 40 seconds left when Dominique Brown was tackled, there was no reason to stop the clock and waste an entire down, and the fourth down play was defended perfectly by Clemson. I know the pain I felt as a fan. I don't want to know how the players and coaches felt walking into that locker room, but I hope that feeling carries them on in a positive manner as they use the learning experience as motivation to work towards a 10-2 record.
The outlook for the rest of the season is a mixed bag of hopefulness and honest anxiety. Louisville hasn't been outplayed in 2014 even though the Cardinal offense has only looked decent in their best of possessions. Louisville's defense will ensure an opportunity to win every game remaining on the schedule, but it is hard to believe the infatuation with self-inflicted wounds will suddenly evaporate.
Saturday is a statement game for the Cardinals. The message to be delivered isn't intended for the rest of the country because a successful and positive four quarters is needed desperately for the players and coaches. Louisville will have 11 days off before Jameis Winston and the defending national champions arrive in in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, and bowl eligibility must be captured Saturday against N.C. State. Power five football is frustratingly fun in 2014 and I cannot wait to enjoy the final five games against five marquee opponents. See you Saturday Cardinal fans.
All Hail UofL!!