As much as Card Nation is looking forward to this impending titanic game for the Louisville football program, we are also doing our fair share of looking back. I’m sure I’m not alone that in my daily life this week, when I stop for a moment, close my eyes, and slide back to 2002. I saw on the screen my parents’ Sharp brand tube TV the driving rain of Tropical Storm Isodore pounding against the crowd clad in cheap multicolored ponchos. It was getting late on a Thursday night, and outside of Dave Ragone’s one-yard toss to Damien Dorsey, the fourth quarter was the epitome of knotted. And so it goes into overtime, and my dad and I are still enshrined in front of that TV, cutting into the time I would usually use playing Starcraft all night. And when I was fourteen, I was hell-bent on playing that game on our brand-new DSL connection as much as I could on weekend nights. But not that night.
That night we were completely stuck in the middle of that game. Stuck in Anthony Floyd’s pick of Chris Rix that set us up for a walk-off field goal win. But no, Henry Miller had to etch it in stone, and he ran twenty-five yards toward two goal posts that were pulled to the ground shortly thereafter. And it kept raining. That glorious, pounding, slapping rain continued to fall on the Louisville-Florida State series until 2014, when we finally crossed over from conference limbo to true (yet relative) stability.
So when I, and I assume many of Card Nation, closes their eyes now, they too see that Thursday game on Halloween night. The one where we came in with an offense dragging its feet while adjusting to Coach Petrino’s newly implanted schemes, let alone short one of its best weapons for most of the season. The one where were stood at #25 in the College Football Playoff Rankings, and they at #2. The one where we had nothing to lose, and they had just about everything to lose.
These parallels strike through 2002 and 2014 like the spears across the Seminole’s helmet, and again cannot be ignored in the buildup to this 2016 edition of FSU/Louisville. Certainly Saturday’s matchup is the most highly touted contest between the schools, with FSU just behind Alabama in the rankings, and the Cards just breaking into the top ten. Both have a schedule that is a prime template for a playoff resume. But the narrative across 2002, 2014, and 2016 is strikingly similar- Louisville is trying to make a statement, and the perennial power Seminoles stand in the way.
The similarity that irks me the most is 2014 and 2016. Just two years have done little to change the reputation of FSU and Louisville football in the ACC. The former is expected to win the Atlantic and contend for playoff berths, the latter a perennial darkhorse. In 2014, Louisville sought to crash the ACC party and break FSU’s 29-game winning streak. And just like the pounding rain of 2002 we remember Will Gardner’s opening 71-yard bomb to a wide-open DeVante Parker. But we also remember that on that same possession, we went four-and-out just four yards from the goal line, and turned it over on downs to the Seminoles.
But that didn’t set the tone for the rest of the first half. Michael Dyer ran from PJCS to the Mall St. Matthews and back, picking up 134 yards and 3 touchdowns along the way. DeVante racked up 214 yards on just 8 catches in his second game bck from injury. Will Gardner was a solid 20-38 for 338 yards, with a touchdown and a pick. Gerod Holliman added two picks of Jameis Winston to add to his record-tying season, and James Burgess added one more to fluster the future number-one pick and Heisman Trophy winner in the first half. We found ourselves up 21-7 at half. Fourteen points wasn’t much, but to me and many others, we were about to seriously shock the city, let alone the entire college football world. You had to feel for LG&E’s repair crews and their customer service representatives.
Then in the second half it was Winston to O’Leary for a first down, Winston to O’Leary across midfield, Winston to O’Leary into the endzone. Our offense stalled in what was an all-too-familiar sight in 2014 and FSU did their patented comeback that only seemed to be foiled by Oregon that year in the CFP semifinals. When it was all said and done they won 42-31- by two scores. The lights stayed on, and LG&E’s repair crews slept soundly, and their automated phone answering system took the night off. And were we disappointed? Honestly, it was hard to be. We knew who FSU was, how successful they had been, how much size, speed, and talent they boasted on both sides of the ball. We saw eleven of their guys walk across the NFL draft stage. No one could balk at the effort the Cards put forth on Halloween 2014, but the result of the game was a clear indicated that there was a pecking order in the Atlantic Division.
After re-watching that game this week, something in the commentary struck me. When Gardner, Dyer, Parker, and company remained on the field for that first fourth down of the game, skinny-tie sagemaster Jesse Palmer mentioned (at 1:43) something on the lines that it wasn’t Coach Petrino’s style to just take the three points. I paused the YouTube video, rewound it back to the opening kickoff, and watched the opening series again. 71-yard bomb to DeVante. Four and out on the goal line. Though there were no points received from this possession, I realized something. That this style- taking chances early, and reaching for the greater reward- was, and had always been the identity of Louisville football under Coach Bobby Petrino.
We enter Saturday with a similar challenge and a similar mentality. Yes, our personnel and offensive philosophy is vastly different. Lamar Jackson is setting the college football world on fire and Smokey the Bear is breaking out in cold sweats. FSU has proven themselves with a decisive win against Ole Miss, complete with a patented second-half comeback. The backdrop and set pieces are all there, and this feels like a rematch of 2014, another chance to take that next step up the ladder. FSU has size and speed where it matters on the defensive line (minus top DB Derwin James), and the Cards have a corps of defensive linemen and linebackers that can get off the block, swarm the ball, and hit hard. We have a QB Heisman contender who can run- a type of player Coach Petrino has long-coveted. They too have a Heisman contender, a top-level RB who, like Winston chose to stay when he could have easily gone. The echoes of 2014 are clearly audible.
Too much hype has gone into this game for me to comfortably make something resembling a bold prediction, whether things will fall short for the Cards as in 2014, or whether the uprights will fall like they did over a decade ago. Gaining good yardage on first down runs, and stopping such first-down runs on the other side of the ball is always a maxim in high-level football. Certainly a slew DBs will be spying on Lamar in James’ absence. Our young quarterback’s timing has to be precise and will need to take what FSU’s defense gives him. But we will also have to play some Bobby Ball, and take those lethal downfield chances when they are ripe. Certainly our defense will offer a lot of different looks as they do under Grantham, but look for a crowded box to hone in on Dalvin Cook. And we obviously can’t turn the ball over like we did up in Syracuse.
But for some reason this whole spiel all sounds the same to me. As fans we can talk and talk and talk, we can build the hype from the fossil beds of the Fall of the Ohio to the top of the Mercer Tower’s dome. From TV heads, to radio voices, to internet trolls, the hype is enticing, addictive, burgeoning, and unavoidable.
But dialectically, there’s the fear of the letdown- if the hype reaches critical mass and doesn’t come through. And I know all of us are facing it too. But screw it. If I close my eyes, it’s too late for a 14-year old on a Thursday but my dad is completely cool with it. Starcraft is anxiously waiting in its CD-ROM case, wondering what the deal is. Henry Miller is about to run across that goal line with water spurting from his cleats. And the rain is pounding harder than ever on the cheap ponchos.