Clemson, South Carolina – Reggie Bonnafon was being let down. His receivers dropped three straight passes on the first series of the freshman’s arrival in Death Valley. On the other side, Clemson’s star quarterback, perhaps College Football’s newest phenomenon Deshaun Watson was battered and bruised. He’d leave the game in the middle of the first quarter with a broken finger.
It was a long road to Louisville’s (4-2) 23 to 17 loss to Clemson (4-2). The score hardly sets the story or tone for each and every odd instance that occurred.
Louisville’s defense was having fun. The Tigers didn’t have positive passing yards until the final drive of the second half. Jermaine Reve had a sack, Lorenzo Mauldin had two and James Sample contributed with a pick too.
Things we’re going well. At least after the initial blow, that is. Sure the Cardinals had given up a special team’s touchdown beginning the game with a 7-0 deficit, but they had recovered. They regained a 10-7 lead via a 38 yard wheel route pass to Dominique Brown. It set the junior from Ohio up for a two yard touchdown run and helped Louisville avoid the dreaded knockout punch in Death Valley.
Then it happened.
Louisville’s offense begin living up to the bill that it had built all season. It was ineffective, moving the ball backwards instead of down the field. They would force themselves into three offensive penalties, collect only two first downs and encounter a disastrous scoop and score after a Reggie Bonnafon fumble. The fumble gave the Tigers a 14-10 advantage heading into the locker room. This, of course, all happening after Louisville got its first and only lead.
Odd things happen in the desert, so it was fitting they were bound to happen in Death Valley. The first half for Louisville had many odd twists: A James Quick muff, a James Quick fumble and a special team’s touchdown. Nothing would go compare to the peaks and valleys they’d see in the second half.
Reggie Bonnafon would start the second half, but he wouldn’t see much time. It was a fair move given that the Louisville native had a pedestrian day finishing the game 5 of 13 on 62 yards passing for 78.5 QB rating.
Enter Will Gardner, the kid from Georgia. The kid that Louisville fans had already written off? He actually turned out to be the guy to put the Cardinals within inches of their biggest road win in school history.
Gardner’s first two plays were incompletions, after that a penalty, but after that script change. Back-to-back to 20 plus yard passes that would be capped by a 22 yard touchdown pass to Eli Rogers. It was a play that knotted the game for the Cardinals late in the third quarter. In a way it was a 5 play, 40 yard drive that was a microcosm of his season. Another oddity too: Gardner rising up when none expected it.
Will Gardner had gave Louisville the chance that none expected them to have. Most had seen this story before: The Louisville defense extending itself beyond comprehension, the Louisville offense doing everything they could to make that effort void. That was the story until Will Gardner entered the game.
Fast forward to the fourth quarter.
After holding one of the Nation’s most explosive offenses in the Country to just under two yards per play, the Cardinals defense is growing weary. Who could blame it? Shortly after a James Burgess interception that set up the Louisville in great field position they found themselves back on the field, again they would force a punt but the third time around the Cardinal offense wouldn’t be so lucky.
Clemson matriculated the ball down the field for a 12 play, 68 yard drive taking 5 minutes and 34 seconds off the clock. They we’re held to a field goal. This allowed Louisville to maintain the powerful statistic of not giving up a touchdown 17 quarters. Doing that was even a miracle, Clemson couldn’t get the ball in for seven even after running three plays inside of the Louisville five. It was another testament to the backbone of the Louisville defense, as if they weren’t glaring enough.
This was the opportunity for Will Gardner. Louisville had really yet seen one of their Cardinal quarterbacks firmly grasp the starting quarterback title. It was here in Death Valley that Gardner had the chance to do that. If he could send the Cardinals on an 81 yard drive up the field in less than 1 minute, 24 seconds to grab a 24 to 23 lead, he would have certainly grabbed it. He needed 81 yards, he got 79 instead.
Will Gardner connected with James Quick on a 79 yard pass on the first play from scrimmage and that’s when things went, for lack of a better term, bananas. Louisville had no timeouts, they would race up the field and begin this sequence of events from the 8 yard line with a 7 yard pass to Kai De La Cruz. He remained inbounds, the clock ticked, 52 seconds now and Louisville heads up to Dominique Brown for a one yard loss. Will Gardner was ready to go, he was up to line of scrimmage, and ready for the play from his head coaches…they wanted a spike.
There was 45 seconds left in the game. Louisville had the option of doing virtually anything, but they choose to waste a down and intentionally spike the ball into the ground. It was hot in Death Valley, perhaps simulating the humidity of the Arizona desert that the stadium is named after. Maybe Bobby Petrino was suffering from heat exhaustion? Maybe he just wanted the perfect play? Maybe he was too confident that he had it?
“I thought that we had the one touchdown play that we practiced and would be able to get it in on fourth down,” an angered Bobby Petrino explained. “The clock was running so we felt like we needed to spike it.”
That one play that ended up being a Will Gardner rollout to his right side looking for Eli Rogers who was knocked down by a Clemson player. Gardner had Milton to his right, who never seemed to factor into the play and James Quick who was pushed out of bounds. It appeared that Clemson had seen the play before, they defended it beautifully.
“We were looking for Eli Rogers,” a determined Will Gardner said following the game.
Bobby Petrino would go on to say that you can always look better and think about what ifs, suggesting that maybe they could have thrown a fade but being content believing the right play was to follow. In this instance, it was the wrong call. In this instance, Petrino compromised his stagnant belief and his offense so much they he didn’t think they needed more than one play. Even when he had a 6 foot 5 inches Wide Receiver in Matt Milton available to his disposable
It seemed fitting to end this way. It was, after all, everything we had witnessed the entire season. Louisville’s offense couldn’t give its defense much of a foot to stand on. Instead they 1 of 17 on third downs, had two turnovers – one that resulted in a score – and double digit penalties for the second straight game.
This Bobby Petrino age appears to be filled with surprises, mishaps and things that should be up that end up down. The play of the Louisville on Saturday evening in Death Valley just added another chapter to that.
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