First of all, if you haven't already read Mark's take on the game from earlier today, go ahead and do that. He says a lot of the same things I was planning to say in this post.
Saturday was one of those games that you wished you could have watched without a rooting interest. The scuffling, the storylines, the big plays, all the late-game lead changes; it was high-drama that it would have been nice to have enjoyed without the thought of having to look your chest-thumping blue-clad friend/family member/co-worker in the eyes on Monday haunting the back of your mind the whole time.
It was, without question, one of the most exciting games in the history of the series, and an extremely solid introduction to the Thanksgiving weekend era of the rivalry. I would have just preferred to experience the whole thing without all the heart-stopping terror. Other than that, great times.
"We're going to lose." These were the words I said as I watched Reggie Bonnafon unable to walk off the field without help.
I am a notoriously pessimistic fan in the days and hours leading up to any game, but once the contest actually gets underway, my mentality typically shifts in the exact opposite direction. Everything's going to be okay, we're never out of a game, we've been in this situation before.
It was hard to pull the Pollyanna routine in the middle of the 2nd quarter on Saturday.
Louisville was down 13-0, it was facing a 3rd and 7, it suddenly couldn't run the ball against UK's front seven, and its starting quarterback was hurt and not coming back into the game anytime soon. The player warming up on the sidelines had begun the season as U of L's 4th string quarterback, and his biggest impact on the program to date had been a handful of tweets he'd sent after committing to the Cards back in 2012.
That all changed in a manner of seconds.
In one of the more remarkable and unexpected performances in Louisville sports history, Kyle Bolin tossed for 381 yards (the 22nd-best single game performance in U of L history) and three touchdowns to beat his team's arch-rival ... the same arch-rival that resides in Bolin's hometown.
So how the hell did this all happen? It's not possible to fully explain, I think, but here's my attempt.
I spoke with a group of former Petrino players on the night of the spring game last April, and their take on the quarterback situation was all the same: it didn't really matter who the guy wound up being, if he understood what Petrino wanted him to do and could get the timing and the proper checks of the offense down, he was going to put up big numbers. The words "you don't have to be Peyton Manning" were said more than once.
In the two and-a-half quarters that Kyle Bolin was under center, the Louisville offense looked more like the Petrino offense we had expected than at any other point in the season. I don't think that's a coincidence.
Bolin has never tried to hide or even tone down the fact that he's a confident person, and that confidence served him better than any of his other skills on Saturday. Despite having never taken a meaningful snap at Louisville, he didn't think twice about making checks when he walked up to the line and saw something he didn't like. He displayed a poise and an understanding of who was supposed to be where and what was supposed to happen once the ball was snapped that we hadn't seen consistently in the previous 11 games.
None of Louisville's quarterbacks this season have had any significant prior experience under center, and they've all been playing for a head coach who can come off as intimidating and a perfectionist when it comes to his quarterbacks. Often times, I think, this has resulted in QBs holding onto the ball too long or being afraid to take a shot when there's been event the slightest chance of something bad happening. The quarterback play has been the equivalent of the point guard who plays 40 minutes hoping for a two assist, no turnover game, and that stat line typically isn't going to get it done.
Bolin trusted himself, his receivers and his knowledge of the offense completely. When he thought he had something, he didn't think twice about getting rid of the ball quickly. More times than not, that confidence served him exceptionally well. One time, the result was disastrous.
To me, Bolin's response to that pick six was the most impressive thing about his entire performance. I think everyone in the stands was thinking the same thing: that all of the confidence this kid had built was now shot, and that he would be playing the rest of the game not to make another mistake. We, the overwhelming majority, could not have been more wrong.
I'm not saying we should start calling him Kylediculous, but Bolin's mentality is of the same cut that helped Russ Smith go from a two-star prospect to an All-American. Sure, Russ had some skills that the vast majority of the other players in college basketball didn't, but it was his willingness to put himself in a position where he could make a mistake, where he could look silly, that allowed him to be great. There are a lot of guys out there who don't want to go 7-for-8 from the field if that one missed shot leaves them open to the possibility of winding up on the SportsCenter "Not Top 10." Russ was the exact opposite of that. If he shot a lay-up over the backboard, he tried to make up for it by getting a steal, and then the shot was already out of his mind by the time the next offensive possession was happening.
Bolin showcased the skillset of a big-time FBS quarterback on Saturday, there's no question about that. He made throws that not many signal callers in the country can make, and when he missed, more times than not he was still putting the ball in a place where only his guys could catch it. More impressive and more important than that, though, was the fact that Bolin was ready for the moment, both in terms of his confidence in his own ability, and in his understanding of the offense. You can't praise the guy enough for both of those things.
Mark Stoops basically admitted after the game that all the nonesense was by design. Both of the pregame "scuffles" (which happened on Louisville's side of the field...the second one around the Cardinal 35) were largely instigated by players who weren't even dressing for the game. Stoops was asked about it afterward, and this is what he said:
"I wanted that. I told them they were coming here to make a difference."
I only caught the second of the two scuffles, but I was right there when the UK players came back onto the field, ran straight over to the "Crunch Zone" folks who had arrived early, and began throwing up a few middle fingers and a lot more "L Down" signs.
I'm not sure I had ever actually seen the "L Down" before, but I saw it many more times during the actual game.
Boom Williams tossed one up (or down) after his first touchdown, and on a handful of subsequent big runs.
A UK offensive lineman also did a running jump onto the Cardinal logo in the endzone after that first score.
There was plenty of other stuff like this, especially for the folks who sat near the Kentucky sideline. Here's Wildcat senior tight end Ronnie Shields making an oral sex motion in the direction of some female spectators, which was apparently among the tamest of the sideline acts:
Then, of course, there was the refusal by a hoard of Kentucky players to shake hands after the game, although it should be noted that Bud Dupree (who was so, so good on Saturday) stayed out there forever to congratulate pretty much every Cardinal he saw.
I hate to view it in these terms, but Saturday was probably one of the best things that could have happened for the overall state of this rivalry. I think a lot of Louisville fans always got excited about the game because of their disdain for Kentucky fans, but they never really harbored any legitimate feelings of dislike for the Wildcat coaching staff or players. I'm not sure that's the case anymore.
Kentucky may have thrown a haymaker that failed to land on Saturday, but the fact that they swung isn't going to be forgotten anytime soon.
There was a lot less blue scattered around the stadium than in years past, which is understandable given the state of both teams heading into the game. Almost all of the UK fans I encountered were fine, but there was a guy two rows behind me who decided to shoot for the most obnoxious person in the world award, which wound up making the closing moments even more enjoyable than they should have been. There were also two Wildcat fans who were escorted out of the game from my section, but the events that precipitated the ejections were too far away from me to catch. I'm sure they were framed.
Overall, the crowd was fantastic. For as long as I can remember, people have criticized a chunk of Louisville football fans for checking out after the start of basketball season, but I think the last two weeks showed that the recent senior day crowds (though still inexcusable) were more about the lack of an exciting opponent and the weather than a waining interest in the gridiron Cards. So long as Kentucky is the senior day opponent, I think you can expect to see a similar crowd and a similar environment in the home finale of even-numbered years at PJCS.
I answered some questions for A Sea of Blue before the game last week, and when they asked about "slowing down" Parker, this is what I said:
Devante Parker will in all likelihood be a first round pick. Since he's come back from his injury has any team found success slowing him down?
Well, Notre Dame is the only team to keep him under 100 yards so far, so I guess the four catches for 65 yards and a score are going to have to qualify as "slowing him down." The biggest thing the Irish did to make that happen was let Louisville run all over them. I'm kind of joking, but I'm also kind of serious. The Cards only had to throw the ball 21 times in that game (as opposed to 50 rushes), and Bonnafon only completed eight passes, so DeVante still finished with half the team's receptions.
There were a lot of complaints during the game about Notre Dame's Cole Luke holding Parker, but he still found ways to get open and was actually overthrown twice on plays that could have easily been long touchdowns. It sounds simple, but I think you just have to stick multiple guys on him at all times and force Bonnafon to find someone else to beat you with through the air. All you have to do is look at the difference between the Louisville offense without Parker and with him to realize that's the best strategy. The kid is awfully, awfully good.
Instead of doing anything resembling shadowing Parker with two guys, Kentucky chose to stick one player on him for virtually the entire game.
Here's how that went:
Via Nate Morguelan
That's not the most effective defense to play on arguably the best wide receiver in college football.
Parker after the game on if he was surprised that Kentucky chose not to double him: "Yeah I was. I was glad they didn't."
All season long, Sheldon Rankins has felt like the unsung hero of the defense, so it was great to see him get recognized for making some huge solo stops down the stretch. I know the stats don't back it up (especially when you look at those of No. 8), but I'm not sure a U of L defender has had a better season than Rankins.
It sure looked like our guys on the edges were getting held a lot whenever UK ran the ball outside the tackles. The result was a lot of frustration from the Cardinal ends and corners, and zero flags. I was also surprised there was nothing thrown on the shot Bolin took to the head on his third pass attempt, especially since the replay showed an official was staring right at the play.
We can shrug that stuff (and the play where Parker got tangled up with a UK corner and the Wildcat safety dropped an easy INT) off now because of the victory, but it would have been a bitter pill to swallow had things gone the other way.
James Quick may have only had three catches, but two of them were absolutely enormous. The third down play where Bolin looked like he was gong down to force a game-on-the-line 4th down play was the biggest one of the afternoon, in my mind. Quick did great work along the sidelines for the second time in the game on that play and wound up coming up with a catch that led to the go-ahead touchdown five plays later. It was a solid redemption afternoon for No. 17 after a season that I think most fans would accurately characterize as "up-and-down."
This was also the most impressive game of the season from Eli Rogers, who played like a guy wanting to make a statement in his final home performance. After seasons that included a handful of uncharacteristic drops, both Rogers and Gerald Christian came up with some huge catches on balls that were thrown into tight windows where only they could come down with them.
Receivers of all ages talk about quarterbacks who throw "heavy" and "light" balls. They look the same when they're heading in your direction, but one feels like it sticks to your hands while the other is much harder to come down with. Perhaps there's something to be said for the brand of ball that Kyle Bolin delivers, because, with the exception of Keith Towbridge and Charles Standberry, Louisville's receivers looked to have a much easier time bringing down tough receptions Saturday than they had at any other point in the season.
Couldn't have been a bigger fan of Holliman's red/back sleeve/sock combo. When you tie an NCAA record that has stood alone since 1968, you've earned the right to take some liberties with your accessories.
The Petrino image before the game is likely going to wind up being the defining one from this game, and I'm fine with it. I don't think it accurately represents the situation since Petrino and that guy were only in contact for a second or two, but even if things had escalated to that point, I have no problem with the head coach of a football team trying to intervene in a situation like that. Petrino was one of the first people at the 50 when Miami players stomped on the bird back in 2006, and I don't think it anyone had a problem with it then.
I don't want to glorify the "standing up for your players" aspect too much, but I definitely think there's something to be said for it, and it's already been pretty apparent that the guys in Petrino's locker room appreciated the act.
Louisville became the first team in the last 19 years of the rivalry to rush for less yardage and still win the game. The Cards also became just the second team in the last 14 years of the series to win despite not scoring the first points of the game. The only other time that happened was in 2011, when U of L fell behind 3-0 early on. The victory also marked the first time Louisville had overcome a 13-point deficit to win since the 2007 season.
It was hard not to think about this Lexington Herald-Leader story from 2013 while watching Bolin do what he did on Saturday.
If you wonder what it's been like for the most prominent high school football player in the hometown of the University of Kentucky to spend almost two full seasons as a U of L recruit - and I did - let's just say it's been interesting.
Bolin smiles about the adult fan at a Lexington Catholic-Lafayette game screaming at him "You suck! Louisville sucks! You are a bust!"
"That was right before I called a play. It was kind of sad I heard that, says I wasn't really focused like I should have been on the game," Bolin said. "But we scored on that drive. And I made sure I threw the 'L' (a hand gesture that involves forming the L in Louisville) up."
The day of this season's Louisville-Kentucky men's basketball matchup, Bolin put on a U of L shirt and took his younger brother, Clay, to a Lexington eatery to watch the game. After Rick Pitino's Cardinals won, a grown man who had two children with him told Kyle he "was a UK reject going to Louisville."
Then he challenged Bolin to a fight.
"My brother kept his head," Clay Bolin said. "The grown-up, he really seemed like he wanted to fight."
Perhaps most fascinating of all have been the things some people have felt free to direct at Kyle on Twitter.
One wished the quarterback a broken leg. Another hoped he develops Lou Gehrig's Disease.
"He showed me those things and I was like 'Why? Why would anyone say such things to a kid?" Monica Bolin, Kyle's mother, said. "It really does make you wonder."
Bolin was pretty animated on Saturday, but I'm not sure I would have been able to dial it down as much as he did if that had been me.
Another quick shoutout to the offensive line, which made the massive leap necessary for this team to have a successful second half of the season. If that unit plays in late October and November the way it did in the first seven games of the season, there's no way Louisville has nine wins right now.
If any Louisville sports team with a Kyle on its roster finds itself in a tough situation in a high-profile home finale, then for the love of God, do not hesitate to put that young man or woman into the game.
Louisville lost its head coach and three first round draft picks, and still just went 9-3 against what many people believed would be the hardest schedule in the history of the program. Without even thinking about the injuries or the handful of plays that could have made that record even more sparkling, that's awfully impressive, and it's awfully encouraging for the future of the program.
The bowl game build-up and event itself are all going to be extremely exciting, but I can't help but find myself really wishing there was another game to play this weekend or in a couple weeks. That offensive performance was too fun to not want more.