Technically, the second Bobby Petrino era at Louisville began when he was formally announced as the Cardinals' head coach on Jan. 9. For all intents and purposes, though, "Bobby Ball" wasn't really back in the Derby City until Labor Day evening, when U of L kicked off its ACC era with a 2006-esque thumping of Miami.
The entire experience on Monday was a perfect mixture of the good vibes of the first Petrino era, and a lot of the positive things that the Cardinal football program has experienced since his departure.
The pregame Card March returned to its original route, but was better attended and more electric than it had ever been in the mid-2000s (or during the Charlie Strong era, for that matter). The spacious green lot was nearly completely full with two hours to go until kickoff, a sight seen in Louisville about as often as an out-of-towner giving an expeditious performance at a Churchill Downs betting window. There were halftime fireworks, all black uniforms, a record crowd of 55,428, and a one-sided victory over a team picked to win the ACC's Coastal Division.
"The biggest difference is Card March and the excitement," Petrino said after the first win of his second tenure at UofL. "Obviously the stadium is bigger. It was so exciting. I was probably more nervous for this game than any game I've ever coached. I haven't slept a lot lately. But it was so exciting once we got to the stadium. And then to watch our players out there and play the way they did ..."
Those players gave a performance that resulted in a very first Petrino era-esque final score, but the way they got there looked a lot different.
Louisville fans weren't exactly planning ticker-tape parades downtown when news first broke that Petrino had hired Todd Grantham to be his defensive coordinator -- and that Grantham would be making nearly $1 million in his first season with the Cards.
Grantham had produced mixed results at nearly every stop of his professional career. Most recently, he'd spent four seasons at Georgia where the Bulldog defense had shown flashes of brilliance, but never finished better than 45th in the country under his direction. He also brought with him to Louisville a 3-4 scheme that the returning Cardinals were unaccustomed to, and which would require two of his most talented players -- Lorenzo Mauldin and Terrell Floyd -- to switch positions.
Under Grantham's watch, the UofL defense entered Monday night with one clear objective: to make someone besides Duke Johnson (Miami's star running back) beat them. They responded by shutting down the preseason first team All-ACC honoree to the tune of 20 carries for just 90 yards, the bulk of which came after the game's outcome was no longer in question. This forced the Hurricanes to try and beat Louisville with the arm of true freshman quarterback Brad Kaaya. It didn't work.
When the final horn blew, Louisville had held a Miami offense loaded with speed and four and five star recruits to just 244 total yards and a single conversion on 13 third down attempts. The Hurricanes had scored 30 or more points in their last seven season-opening games. On Monday night, they could manage only 13.
As far as the offense was concerned, the mere mention of Petrino's name had forced thoughts of 700-yard passing efforts and 60+ point performances into the minds of Cardinal fans for the past eight months. But with a first-time starter at quarterback and without his biggest offensive weapon (injured wide receiver DeVante Parker), Petrino opted to keep things vanilla in his second debut at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium ... or at least as vanilla as he's capable of being.
After a bit of shaky start, sophomore quarterback Will Gardner settled down and consistently made the easy, open throws that his head coach's offense presented him with. The result was an efficient 20-of-28 performance that, coupled with a terrific effort from senior running back Dominique Brown, was able to put 31 points on the board and secure a decisive victory against an opponent that looks on paper to be the toughest Louisville will face this month.
Bobby Petrino spent the preseason saying all the right things, but this was the unspoken message his fan base had been waiting to receive. The majority of U of L fans walked into the season-opener at least somewhat unsure of what to expect, but they walked out with the result they'd spent the summer months dreaming about. It was a result that will allow them to dream some more, as the Cards figure to be favored to win their next five games before hitting the road to face Clemson on Oct. 11.
There may not have been any bird stomping, any fake punts or double reverses, but there were still fireworks at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium on Monday, both literally and figuratively. Bobby Ball is back in Louisville, which means the coming months are sure to be filled with much, much more.
I'm gonna go ahead and start with the fan base, because the whole day (or weekend, really) felt like such an earned moment for the people who supported Cardinal football before there really even was a Cardinal football.
I knew when the green lot was jam-packed at 6 p.m. that the stadium was going to be full at some point, I just didn't realize that it would be from 20 minutes before kickoff to almost the final whistle. We talked multiple times during the summer about the fan base no longer having any excuse, and on Monday they didn't need one. It was without question the best crowd performance I've ever seen inside Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.
This video is the best way I can explain it (apologies for the language and mild shot at Charlie Strong -- if that offends you -- near the end):
U of L fans still have to prove that they can do this over an entire season, including times when things aren't so rosy, but Monday was certainly a groundbreaking step in the right direction.
That leads us right into the greatest intro in ESPN college football history. Beautifully done, CCBM crew.
Lorenzo Mauldin, Sheldon Rankins, Deiontrez Mount, B.J. Dubose, James Burgess, Keith Kelsey and the rest of the Cardinal front seven get the first individual shoutouts of the post, because they controlled this game. Also, kudos to Coach Grantham for making our 3-4 panic seem silly.
A few friends and I discussed a shared worry before the game about the legend of the opening Petrino scripted series. Our fear was that because so much had been made (especially by Louisville fans) of Petrino's ability to score on an opening drive, the stadium might fall a little flat if the Cards came on the field and immediately went three and out.
That's exactly what happened, but the fans never got the least bit deflated, in fact it was the exact opposite. The crowd reacted like U of L had just turned the ball over late in a tie game and the defense needed one big stop to stay alive. The players fed off that emotion and got the ball right back to Will Gardner, who responded with the first TD drive of his short career as a starter.
Outside of the two fumbles, I think you have to be pretty thrilled with the way Gardner played on Monday. Not only did he have the maturity to make the right reads and take what the Miami defense gave him, but there were a few throws where he displayed the arm strength he'll need once Petrino opens up the offense a bit and asks him to do a little (or much) more.
Gardner finished with just eight incompletions, and one of those was a blatant pass interference on Eli Rogers that went uncalled, and another was a really bad drop by Michaelee Harris that should have been a huge gain. Gardner didn't miss wildly, he didn't appear overwhelmed by the moment, and he showed the potential to be a bona fide star in the future. All things considered, I'd say that's all you can ask for in a debut.
The best part about Corvin Lamb's return (outside of completely swinging the game in the direction of the good guys) was that three other guys on the return team -- Eli Rogers, Kai De La Cruz and Brandon Radcliffe -- all pulled off the premature one finger point celebration before he even crossed midfield. Radcliffe was the most visible because he kept doing it as he followed Corvin to the endzone, but Rogers gets the biggest bonus point for being the first one to get the finger up.
I was a little bit surprised by the number of Miami fans around the city during the day, tailgating in the green lot before the game and actually inside the stadium. I suppose the days of the visitor's section being occupied by 12 Memphis fans who refuse to look up from their phones are over. I actually enjoy it far more than the alternative.
For one day, the universe was like, "hey man, I'm just gonna go ahead and throw everything you love directly at you all at once." If it would have started raining Laffy Taffy and episodes of "The Wire," I would have been 100 percent okay with dying right then and there.
Someone get KH a bird mask.
The secondary did some good things, but they also did enough to keep the worry around that U of L might be in a little bit of trouble against some of the better passing teams on their schedule. Even on James Sample's interception, it looked like he was way too shallow and that a good throw might have left him beaten over the top for the second time in the game. Overall, the unit was much better than we feared they might be just a couple of months ago, but they certainly need to keep progressing for the challenges that October is going to bring.
Also, we should all be really, really glad that Sample made it here.
I had actually typed out a whole spiel in my Game Day post where Dominique Brown was the predicted player of the game, but then went back and changed it to Gerald Christian. Christian was still a solid pick, but definitely should have stayed with my gut there. I've felt like Dom has been one of the most overlooked studs in the country all offseason, and he made an awfully large statement on week one.
Spencer Hall made this point in The Acrostical, but one of the biggest things Bobby Petrino did to protect Will Gardner in his first start was call running plays in situations that seemed to call for a pass, and vice versa. Calling a pass when the defense had to be ready for a run forced Gardner to act quickly, and more times than not he had an easily completable short throw available to him. Those are the types of rhythm plays that allow a first-time starter to build a solid base of confidence.
Charles Gaines may be the only player in the country who legitimately talks sh-t after every single play. I mean, every single play, regardless of what just happened or where he is on the field. It's okay though, because he's really, really good.
Have we ever had a more consistent specialty player who receives less love than Eli Rogers? The guy has been catching five or more passes a game for at least 50 yards since the first Clinton administration. He's also developed into one of the team's best leaders, both vocally and by example.
We praised the fans at the beginning, but there's still always that insanely vocal and irrational exception or exceptions ('sup, "Siva should transfer" crew from 2012) who try to ruin everything for everybody.
On Monday night there was a group of guys nearby who kept trying to start a "we want Reggie" cheer when the offense was sputtering early in the 3rd quarter. The most vocal person in this crew (who was wearing a red shirt, naturally) then started screaming sarcastically about wanting Shawn Watson back. U of L promptly ripped off four huge plays and put the ball in the endzone, an act which caused red shirt to stay seated with his arms crossed while the rest of the stadium stood and cheered.
I'll never understand having so much pride that it detracts from your ability to be, in the most literal sense, a fan. Are you here because you want Louisville to win? Or does it not count if Louisville doesn't win in precisely the way you want them to win? I can almost understand being so upset that you get caught up in a moment and become the obnoxious dude who lashes out vocally, but refusing to cheer when the team you support actually accomplishes something that brings them much closer to securing a victory? You're the worst, man.
In a lot of ways, the John L and Petrino I era of mucho points was one of the worst things that could have happened to Louisville football fans. For a lot of people, that was the first time they got hooked on Cardinal football, and they've romanticized the period so much that scoring anything less than 40 points now feels like a pseudo failure.
This is where the ACC adjustment might take a while. It shouldn't be that hard to understand that owning a 21-13 3rd quarter lead over a Miami team picked to win the Coastal Division -- especially when you're breaking in a brand new quarterback and just lost three first round draft picks -- is infinitely better than leading a 4-4 Memphis team 49-38 in the 3rd quarter.
We'll get there.
CardsFan922 mentioned it in his post, but the start of the 2nd quarter was super weird. The crowd was still reacting to the "Proud to be ACC" cards thing when Miami hit its biggest pass of the game. Then you had the Louisville defense running all over the place (although it did look like they only had 11 guys on the field at the moment the ball was snapped) before the obvious backward pass that Louisville recovered but wasn't able to return. Then there was the Cardinal offense stalling and the defense looking vulnerable; it was the only period of the game where it felt like U of L wasn't in total control. Super weird, but thankfully super short.
Special teams caught a lot of flack, especially early in the game, but it would certainly appear as though John Wallace ate his Wheaties during the offseason. If he can keep putting the ball that deep for the entirety of the season, it's going to be a monster asset.
Also kudos to those guys for posing with Louisville fans both before and after the game.
It's pretty easy to understand the frustration Miami fans felt over the play-calling Monday night, especially when the Hurricanes were in the red zone. One of the biggest gifts the Cards got, I thought at least, was when The U refused to throw the ball before the field goal that put them ahead 10-7. Kaaya had just completed three big passes to get his team inside the 15, and then you don't have the confidence to let him make a play on 3rd and 3? Same with the series after the Will Gardner fumble where UM settled for three points.
Al Golden admitted on Wednesday that loosening the leash on Kaaya probably would have given his team a better chance to win. Thankfully he didn't realize it during the actual game.
Only one uncool thing happened Monday, and that was that we (read: me) parked in the wrong spot and had our car towed to some mysterious lot behind the soccer stadium that took an hour to find. It did afford us the opportunity to see Kai De La Cruz's glorious ketchup locks up close, and also to see a dejected Al Golden sitting (sans tie) at the front of the Miami bus with his wife.
Golden looked completely defeated and very much like a hot seat coach who just dropped a crucial first game of a crucial season. It made me remark that you don't often get to see this depressing side of things and that it almost made me feel bad about what had just happened, to which Mrs. CC replied that he's still a millionaire who is less deserving of pity than a solid chunk of the rest of the world. It was a good point.
We found my car, but we missed all of the Paul Rogers' postgame. It would have been a pretty bad moment had it not been for the preceding 12 hours or so.
If she and Teddy make it to a game together and get announced during a timeout, there's going to be a rorgy (riot/orgy) in the stands.
Some Miami fans have already said the same thing, but I was pretty stunned by the lack of intensity shown by the Hurricane players throughout the game. Even when they did make gestures or try to pump one another up, it seemed almost fake.
If these are the guys who are trying to "bring The U back," they're certainly not acting like it. And forget about it as a Miami thing, if you can't get pumped up for a nationally-televised season-opener against a well-regarded team from your own conference (that smoked you in a bowl game nine months ago), then that's probably not a great sign for the rest of your season.
I don't know how you could be anything other than over-the-top enthusiastic at this moment. Louisville may not have played like a team capable of hanging with Florida State or Notre Dame on Monday, but they showed the potential to get there...all while looking better than pretty much every other team in the ACC.
Everyone, I think, shared the same deep, dark fear heading into Labor Day night that the Cards might show up and look like a squad completely incapable of dealing with this step-up in competition. That did not happen, and now we get to really daydream about what the next three months might hold. The pieces are there, the kids obviously have faith in their new staff, and both are going to have plenty of opportunities to show their stuff on a national stage.
This is the ride we've been waiting for. We don't know how it's going to turn out, but there's no doubt that it's going to be exciting.
The start couldn't have been much better.