On the most revelatory college pigskin Saturday of the campaign, the road to the Final Four narrowed considerably, becoming much more arduous for the Louisville Cardinals.
On a U of L squad with legitimate CFB Playoff/ New Year's Six aspirations, several key players and one unit turned in Belk Bowl performances.
On a day in Charlottesville when the Cards again seemed surprisingly out of sync on both sides of the ball, they proved their mettle by grinding out a win.
All of which I'll get to, but let's begin with Lamar Jackson, who while playing very good but at less than peak performance level, showed his Heisman worthy mettle.
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With 1:57 to play, Louisville got the ball back with a chance to redeem itself.
It needn't have come down to this, but it had.
The Cards, playing behind most of the day, finally took the lead early in the 4th, then increased it to 7 with a FG. But, in a manner that hearkened back to the Duke escape, Todd Grantham's defense gave up a grind 'em out, who's got the most manly men drive to retake the lead.
14 plays. 75 yards. 6:12 on the clock. Then a gutsy Virginia two point conversion to take a 25-24 advantage, with under 2:00 to play.
Is LJ truly a transcendent signal caller, ready to grab the game by the short and curlies when adversity strikes?
Are the Cardinals really one of the nation's five best teams, able to survive when it's improbable?
The answers: Yes. And, yes.
LJ rush for 18 yards to the Cardinal 43.
Brandon Radcliff carry for 7 yards to midfield.
Two incomplete, and not very precise, passes leaving Louisville with a 4th & 3 at the 50.
LJ to ever ready, ever steady Cole Hikutini for 5 yards, and a new set of downs.
LJ for 9 yards. Then LJ for 7 yards. 1st & 10 at the Cavalier 29 with :18 left to play. Time out Louisville. (As with most outfits facing such a late game challenge, college or pro, U of L's clock management left a lot to be desired.)
Not to worry. Taking a one step drop out of the shotgun, Lamar Jackson lofted a pin point perfect pass to the right corner of the endzone, the recipient of which was Jaylen Smith, who made a very tough five star catch for the winning TD.
The same duo connected for a two point conversion, and a seven point 32-25 lead.
On UVa's final play, the Cardinals registered a sack to secure the victory. It was the U of L D's one and only sack of the day.
From the jaws of defeat . . . etc, etc, etc.
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There are now but four unbeaten Power Five schools, each with a legit shot of winning out. In which case, they will obviously comprise the Final Four.
Alabama, Michigan, Clemson, and Washington.
Cardinal fans were hoping for UDub to slip at Utah. Didn't happen. Chris Petersen's Huskies are legit.
Louisville remains #5 in the minds of most "experts." Of course, there is, as they say. lots of football yet to be played. The Cards still have to visit Houston, and the Cougars remain a formidable outfit.
I'm guessing the Orange Bowl may be the Cards' ceiling this campaign. Think of how that statement is fraught with irony: In a "disappointing" finale of the year, U of L has to settle for the Orange Bowl.
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The mention of Clemson has me wondering yet again how things might stand had over-hyped James Quick veered right in Death Valley instead of skipping to the sideline?
Which is an especially relevant contemplation, given Quick's woeful performance early yesterday. Several drops in key situations on the Cards' first couple drives. Announcer Mike Bellotti pointedly observed, after a Quick drop, "Jackson's not getting much help from his receivers."
Louisville's "highest ranked recruit ever" registered 0 receptions for the day.
Here comes the broken record. More less than acceptable play from Louisville's still yet to jell offensive line. They surrendered five sacks, and ten TFLs. It cost Lamar Jackson 44 yards on his rushing stat line. They were whistled for holding thrice on U of L's last drive of the opening half.
Micky Crum whiffed on a block, allowing an unimpeded sack of LJ on a 4th & 3, ending Louisville's second drive of the 2d Q.
On 3d Down, during the Cards opening drive after halftime, Jeremy Smith caught a swing pass from LJ, then failed to plunge forward with championship quality toughness and effort to gain the 1st. The Cards were forced to punt, after a 3 & out.
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On the plus side:
Reggie Bonnafon -- remember him -- grabbed two TD passes.
Seven different Cardinals, none named Quick, registered receptions. Led by Jamari Staples with 7, and Hikutini with 6.
Blanton Creque is showing he may become a steady presence when a FG attempt is necessary.
Future All-America Jaire Alexander had six tackles, a break up, and two interceptions. After the second he fashioned a beautiful jitterbugging return for serious yardage. That led to U of L's go ahead TD.
Next: Boston College.
-- Seedy K