Uncharted Territory for Louisville
It was a Thursday evening in November when Bobby Petrino's Louisville Cardinals were preparing to take the field in Rutgers Stadium. Usually, this would not be a marquee game, but for 2006 it was a different story. They had the eye of the nation. Thursday night games always have a decent TV audience. For Louisville, it was a No.3 ranking on the line; for Rutgers, it was a chance to get into the top 10. There was plenty on the line for both teams. I don't think I even need to research this because it is the biggest Louisville / Rutgers game ever. The Cardinals had taken care of business for eight games and played their way into their highest ranking ever. They'd be in the thick of any legitimate title game discussion with a few more wins.
Built For Success
Louisville began the season with 17 returning starters from their 2005 squad. The hype was not overwhelming, though; most publications had them in the top 3 or 4 in the Big East. Brian Brohm (QB) came in with plenty of respect. He had passed over 2,800 yards and had a 166.7 QBR the previous season. Their talent level was undeniable. That wasn't entirely out of the ordinary for Louisville at that point. They had won 29 games in the three previous seasons. Along with Brohm, this squad also had future NFL players with RB Kolby Smith, RB Anthony Allen, WR Harry Douglas, OL Eric Wood, and DL Amobi Okoye, to name a few. The right pieces were definitely in place, and Louisville was ready for the task.
The First 7 Games
Louisville rolled right along for the first seven games of the season. They were beating their opponents by an average score of 38-12. Their most impressive win up to that point was over No.15 Miami, so It was a little bit early to be getting excited. Especially with Rich Rod's No.3 West Virginia Mountaineers coming to town. Maybe it all comes down to this game. Perhaps they do run the table if they win it. Maybe they put themselves into the top two and set themselves up for a BCS title game spot with a win. With an off week to prepare, Louisville headed into what most people would consider the most critical game in the program's history.
No.3 West Virginia at No.5 Louisville
This game would have been ESPN's GameDay selection if it weren't scheduled on a Thursday night. Because Louisville had gone down to the Mountaineers in 3 OTs the previous year, they had revenge on their minds. A fantastic opportunity for Louisville, revenge, and a top 3 ranking all at the same time. The Cards struggled in the first half but ultimately cruised to a 44-34 victory. On the back of a Brian Brohm / Anthony Allen / Kolby Smith combo for nearly 500 yards of offense and 3 TDs, the Cardinals cruised to an 8-0 record. A historical moment for this Louisville program.
4 Games To Go, How Hard Could It Be?
There was but one ranked team remaining on their regular-season schedule. It was the next game up, and the good guys were a 6-point road favorite. After Rutgers, it could be clear sailing for Louisville to a possible BCS title game berth. At this point of the season, three undefeated teams had a shot. Ohio State, Michigan, and Louisville. And we all know that Michigan and Ohio State play each other. So it goes without saying that Petrino and Louisville had to feel pretty good about their remaining schedule.
A Thursday Night In November
For Louisville, the focus was very simple. If you slow Ray Rice, you have a decent shot at winning the game. They would need to refer to Connecticut at Rutgers game film. Uconn had held Rice to just 79 yards on 22 carries (less than 4 yards per carry) in a losing effort just a week before. So if Louisville was going to leave with a win, holding Rice's numbers down would pay dividends in the process. A win in this game would not only strengthen their No.3 ranking, it would all but secure a No.2 ranking by the end of the regular season.
Maybe It Was Not In The Cards (No Pun Intended)
It was a high pressure moment. Louisville had a 25-14 lead at the half, partly because they had held Ray Rice to 42 yards on eight carries and 1 TD. One more half, they've got the lead; what could go wrong? Well, for starters, Ray Rice became a more significant factor in the 2nd half, as he helped his Knights come back from an 11-point deficit. His 80 yards and 3rd quarter TD helped Rutgers find their groove. Ironically, that's not what got Louisville that night, though. Their inability to score in the 2nd half ultimately cost them the game: six punts, 38 total yards for the Cards in the 2nd half.
Rutgers 28 Louisville 25is how it all came down for the '06 Cardinals. They would have won this game if Louisville could have found just a little offense. And more importantly, they would have certainly played Ohio State for the BCS title. It was not to be. They played it safe; they played not to lose instead of playing for the win. It cost them a shot at the BCS championship.