Wow. On Saturday the Cards became just the 13th program ever to win its 1st game at Notre Dame Stadium.
Forget that. Imagine the journey. Notre Dame is classic college football royalty, Louisville’s program didn’t get serious about football until the plan was put into place to build Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. But going from the Missouri Valley to Independent status to Conference USA to the Big East through the American Athletic, and then eventually the Atlantic Coast Conference, Louisville’s ascension up the ladder has been DRAMATIC.
UofL is just the 13th program ever to win in its 1st try at Notre Dame. Where does that rank in Louisville history? Why does that matter?
I don’t want to overplay the significance of what happened on Saturday. Louisville isn’t a Playoff team in 2014 and they do have a shot at making the Orange Bowl but when put into perspective this game was unprecedented for the Cards.
Louisville didn’t have a real football stadium in 1998. Howard Schellenberger‘s 1988 team went 8-3 and failed to get a bowl, in 1990 folks scoffed at Louisville getting a Fiesta Bowl bid despite having a 9-1-1 record. In 1991 the season was lost when Jeff Brohm broke his leg vs. Tennessee. In 1992 a failed 2-point conversion sunk an upset bid at Ohio State. In 1993 the Cards finished 9-3 with wins over Arizona State, Texas, Pitt, and Michigan State and finished OUTSIDE the Top 25. In 1994 it was decided that the Cards would join Conference USA which forced Howard Schellenberger to Oklahoma (he didn’t believe in the decision). But the groundwork had been laid in May of 1993 when Bill Olsen & Schellenberger led a fundraising drive to build Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.
The Cardinal Football program languished under Ron Cooper from 1995-97 and a year before Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium was set to open Tom Jurich replaced Bill Olsen, and John L. Smith replaced Ron Cooper. A new era began, but Louisville was only beginning its climb.
Now the Cards had a respectable home with top flight facilities and the Cards made bowl after bowl under John L. Smith and finished in the Final AP Top 25 Poll for just the 3rd time in school history in 2001. During his tenure Smith’s Cardinals took down programs like Boston College, BYU, Florida State, and Illinois. But 5 consecutive bowl trips under Smith to places like Detroit, Boise, Memphis (2x), and Mobile left Louisville fans (who had appeared in just 5 other bowls in history) wanted more…..and as it turned out so did John L. Smith who bolted for Michigan State.
The program took a step forward as UofL took from 1998-2002 under John L. Smith going 41-21, but it was about to go next level under Bobby Petrino. From the beginning, Louisville took off: 9-4 in 2003, 11-1 in 2004, 9-3 in 2005, and 12-1 in 2006. During that time the Cards finished in the Top 25 three times (prior only had 3 finishes in Top 25) with two finishes ranked #6 in the country and an Orange Bowl win. Louisville moved from Conference USA to the Big East and notched wins over Boise State, Kansas State, Miami, North Carolina, Oregon State, TCU, and West Virginia. Then the Atlanta Falcons swooped in and hired Bobby Petrino away from twice the salary and a chance to coach Michael Vick in the NFL.
From 2007-2009, once again the program languished. Steve Kragthorpe never led the Cards to a bowl game snapping a 9-season bowl streak. His replacement Charlie Strong resurrected the program and while it took 2 seasons to have a significant season, Strong took the Cards bowling right away. Strong notched wins over Florida, Miami West Virginia, and North Carolina during his tenure at UofL, won a Sugar Bowl and finished in the AP Top 15 twice. Louisville gained an invitation to the ACC under Strong and reversed the course of the program from the direction it was headed 3 years prior to arrival. Without Strong, Louisville isn’t in the ACC and the Cards don’t play Notre Dame.
Which leads us to last Saturday in South Bend. Louisville is in Year 1 of a new league, with a new coach, and a new Quarterback….who was injured which led to the Cards having to play a true freshman on the road vs. Notre Dame. Bobby Petrino 2.0 has had plenty of challenges; a fumble on a punt that would have sealed the game vs. Virginia, a 4th down from the 2 vs. Clemson, and the lead at the 4:00 mark in the 4th quarter vs. Florida State.
Against Notre Dame, Louisville got out to a hot start and ceded that lead to the Irish with about a minute to play in the 3rd quarter. Louisville’s past & pedigree suggests at that moment, the Cards fold………they didn’t.
Instead, Louisville turned to Brandon Radcliff an asserted its will on the ground which opened up enough space for DeVante Parker to hit on two huge gains, one for a TD, to regain the lead. Then after a James Burgess sack, Louisville was able to dominate on the ground again….at Notre Dame Stadium…….Louisville…..to build a lead to 31-20.
The little football program without a home playing in a minor league baseball stadium 17 years ago, now took Notre Dame’s best punch….steadied….and then ground the Irish into submission on its own field.
Are the Cards a finished product? No. The Cards have a true freshman Quarterback. A 61-yard punt return set up a score for Notre Dame, similar to how the Cards fell to Clemson. A miscue in the secondary had Bobby Petrino looking for the Leprechaun as the Irish scored on a batted ball in the endzone, a play that should have been an interception for Louisville turned into a Notre Dame Touchdown. But on the road, at Notre Dame Stadium, Louisville prevailed anyway against the winningest College Football program.
How bright is Louisville’s future under Bobby Petrino 2.0? I’d say pretty bright. New coach, new QB….and then a NEWER QB, new conference, on the road wins against Notre Dame, and a chance to win every game in a season where the Cards are going for win #9 with a shot at the Orange Bowl.
Bobby Petrino 2.0 might just be better than the intro version. The Cards got its signature win for 2014, now we get to see how this group wants to cement its legacy this week vs. Kentucky.
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