Have you ever seen Rocky? Maybe Rocky II, III or IV? If those titles ring familiar then you'll remember the almost cartoonish beatings Rocky would take in the ring. Jab after jab, haymaker after haymaker, all to the head with Rocky's gloves bouncing pointless at his waist or below his chin. The first two quarters last Thursday felt like Rocky IV as Houston beat down the Cardinals emulating Ivan Drago.
Louisville took the beating and kept asking for the beating, but when they finally hit the mat, the 9-1 5th ranked Cardinals never got back up. The Houston debacle shattered all playoff dreams, however, Louisville can still put a cherry on top one of the most special seasons in its history. The Cardinals have so much to play for Saturday and that's all that matters now.
They say sometimes you just have to put it in the rearview mirror. Easier said than done when the Houston debacle keeps chasing the Cardinals like that t-rex from Jurassic Park. Biggest takeaway is the necessity of Louisville's coaching staff to continue to focus heavily on recruiting the offensive line. The Dallas Cowboys are the best team in the NFL because they made the hogs up front their number one investment. Alabama is a perennial title contender because their boys in the trenches are bigger, faster, and stronger year in and year out. The Cardinals aren't going to land all blue chips, but Petrino has to make it a priority to fill the roster with promising potential.
On a similar note, it is time to seriously evaluate Coach Klenakis. After Louisville dominated Florida State and held its own against Clemson, Louisville's frontline seemed to have finally turned a corner and Klenakis had his unit gelling. However, as the season has moved along, performances of the offensive line have regressed, penalties are increasing, and sacks allowed are sky rocketing. The same issues have plagued Louisville's front five for three years now and the Houston game was more than a reality check. Recruiting better offensive lineman is a must, but it isn't all about the stars next to a kid's name. Houston fielded just one defensive player last Thursday who garnered more than three stars out of high school. The Cougars had compiled just 25 sacks all season, but totaled 11 against the Cards which once again proves attitude is everything.
Mike Summers was Petrino's offensive line coach in his first tenure at Louisville. Summers molded unheralded and sometimes unranked recruits such as Kurt Quarterman, Travis Leffew, Jason Spitz, Breno Giacomini, Goerge Bussey, Renardo Foster, and Eric Wood into all-conference/all-American performers. Many spent time in the NFL, Eric Wood is now an all-pro center, and Breno has a Super Bowl ring. Something is missing in regards to the o-line during Bobby's second run as Louisville's leading man, but I fully trust/expect Coach Petrino to fix the problem.
It's over. All Louisville can do now is focus on what lies ahead. Louisville's biggest rival enters PJCS Saturday as a bowl bound team for the first time since 2010. The Cardinals have won five straight against Kentucky and Coach Petrino is 7-1 all-time versus the Wildcats. As the 11th ranked team in the country and the number two overall team in the ACC, Louisville has a chance to lock up an Orange Bowl bid Saturday with a victory. Miami wasn't the ultimate goal, but a New Year's showdown against Michigan, Penn State, Ohio State, or Wisconsin would be a much welcomed opportunity to end a great season on an even higher note. The Cardinals have a chance to end 2016 11-2 as a top 10 team with all kinds of momentum entering 2017. Seize the opportunity.
Team aspirations aside, Saturday is all about 14 seniors and a true sophomore named Lamar.
This program, as well as its fans, have a lot to be thankful for when reminiscing about this senior class. There are the four year contributors like Keith Kelsey, James Quick, Keith Towbridge, and Lamar Atkins whose leadership allowed the Strong-to-Petrino transition to appear seamless and uneventful. Next are transfers and junior college athletes like Jamari Staples, Cole Hikutini, Devonte Fields, and Josh Harvey-Clemons who have elevated Louisville Football back to national prominence. Theses seniors have the opportunity to finish their careers with a 40-12 record which would make them the second winningest class in Louisville history. Eight of these departing seniors have a legitimate chance to make an NFL roster. Also, Devonte Fields should allow Louisville to claim a first round draft pick for a fourth consecutive year. Was this a championship team? We will never know, but thanks to this senior class, Louisville Football is once again a championship program.
Then there is our 8th wonder of the world... Lamarvelous. Houston's avalanche of sacks most likely ruined Jackson's pursuit of history in regards to total touchdowns. However, the offensive line was so bad that many voters are now more impressed he was able to survive and thrive all season behind five blocking dummies. If Lamar can stuff the stat sheet Saturday and end the regular season with a victory, then he will be the first Cardinal to ever win the Heisman Trophy, the Maxwell Award, Walter Camp Award, and the Davey O'Brien. He should be first team All-ACC, as well as a first team All-American. Did I mention he is only 19 and a true sophomore? Saturday is a must win for many reasons, but Lamar Jackson's performance in 2016 will be all for naught if he isn't able to take home the hardware. These post season awards will pay dividends for the program and on the recruiting trail. Say it out loud and let it sink in: Louisville Football has a Heisman Trophy winner.
Houston's destruction of Louisville will sting for years to come. For the players returning in 2017, let's hope it blossoms into a motivational reminder. The Cardinals missed their chance of spoiling the playoffs, but the pathway ahead has never been clearer. Unleash every ounce of pent up anger on Kentucky and show no mercy on the Wildcats. Accept a bid to the Orange Bowl and prove how overrated the Big 10 is. Help Lamar carry all his trophies and launch this program into a top five ranking heading into 2017. All that matters now lies ahead. Louisville First, Cardinals Forever. Beat UK!
All Hail UofL!!