by Mark Coomes via Insider Louisville
Ever gone fishing and caught nothing but squirts all day and then suddenly hooked a good one, the kind that makes your rod bow and your heart race?
It’s not a trophy fish but it feels heavy and it pulls hard, and when you yank that thing out of the water, your jaded fishing buddies are gonna give you a nice attaboy when they see it.
You’re already basking in the glory as you finish reeling it in, and then the line goes slack and it’s gone.
That’s what happened at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday.
The University of Louisville let the big one get away.
Archrival Kentucky, the only sizable fish on Louisville’s minnow-filled football schedule, fought to a virtual draw. The Cardinals were favored by 14 and won by 14. There wasn’t much to tweet home about.
It was a workmanlike 27-13 victory that stamped U of L as the clearly superior team. But nobody was satisfied, not even the home fans, whose improving team dodged an expected blowout.
Nobody was impressed, least of all the computers and pollsters who are as keen on style points as Joan and Melissa on the red carpet.
U of L was the indie ingénue who showed up wearing an off-the-rack frock from Ann Taylor.She didn’t look bad but she didn’t make any jaws drop either.
What a shame. This was her big moment.
UK is the only major-conference team the Cardinals will play this year. It was their only chance to plant a flag in the big boys’ turf.
A 14-point win won’t plant the flag high enough. In the coming weeks, Florida, South Carolina, Alabama and Georgia are good bets to do what they usually do to bad UK teams – win by fat margins in iron-fisted fashion.
U of L will suffer by comparison and its foothold in the top 10 could start to erode. The slippage started Sunday when the new polls came out.
No, it actually started in the fourth quarter Saturday, when the defense surrendered 10 of UK’s 13 points and the offense blew a chance to gussy up the score with an extra touchdown.
The Cards not only frittered away the 7, they fouled up the 3 by getting a field goal blocked – merely the latest lapse by U of L’s reliably unreliable special teams.
This is not nitpicking. As Coach Charlie Strong has said, he’s holding the Cardinals to higher standards this year. The rest of the country is too. Folks expect seventh-ranked teams to put lopsided beatdowns on opponents picked to finish last in their conference.
When you don’t, people notice.
Texas A&M was ranked sixth when it lost on Saturday, and in the lockstep logic of the polls, that usually lifts the No. 7 team up a notch. Voters in the USA Today Coaches Poll did exactly that. They always do. Nobody ever accused the coaches of overthinking their votes.
The media are bit more discriminating. Associated Press voters took a look at the Cards’ underwhelming margin against UK and played leapfrog with No. 8 LSU. The Tigers clobbered Kent State 45-13. Now they’re No. 6.
I suspect this won’t be the last time the Cards get leapfrogged.
They play in a conference where four of the 10 teams are winless. Their next opponent, Florida International, was just pounded 34-13 by Bethune-Cookman, which like Eastern Kentucky hails from the Football Championship Subdivision (nee Division I-AA).
It’s impossible to distinguish yourself against teams like Florida International, South Florida, Connecticut, Memphis and Temple, which also lost to a FCS school Saturday. Those teams comprise more than half of U of L’s remaining games.
They own a combined record of 0-13.
U of L might earn some props for beating Rutgers and Cincinnati, but their best hope is Central Florida, which upset Penn State Saturday and is knocking on the door of the top 25. Still, those are off-brand teams from an obscure new conference. Running that table gives U of L a stringer full of bluegill.
Check the polls. The Cards’ neighbors are fishing for trophy bass. A few of them will land some lunkers and build credentials weighty enough to push U of L down in the rankings.
Beating Kentucky by 35 or 40 was U of L’s best – only? – chance to make a case against getting serially leapfrogged. The Wildcats aren’t great but their new coaches are fielding a better product every week. Even Alabama and Georgia might be hard-pressed to win by five or six TDs.
Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that so-so win over UK likely killed U of L’s already scant hopes of landing in the national championship game. When the first BCS rankings are revealed next month, computer ratings will be factored in. The silicone chips will barf electrons when they assess the Cardinals’ strength of schedule.
The UK game didn’t help Teddy Bridgewater’s Heisman hopes, either. The Cardinal quarterback’s pedestrian stats – 250 yards and one touchdown – won’t go unnoticed when voters start splitting hairs in November. It’s not a good look when your worst game comes against the opponent that plays in the best conference.
Bridgewater’s reputation might be lofty enough to overcome one mediocre performance. But if you watched much ESPN last weekend, you heard a lot of talking heads saying that Johnny Manziel is the frontrunner again. Burning Alabama for 464 yards and five TDs made the A&M quarterback’soffseason folderol look pretty irrelevant.
The Cards’ loftiest goals drifted a little farther from their grasp on Saturday, but it speaks volumes about the program that winning a third straight game over Kentucky is no cause for confetti. They are still undefeated, ranked sixth in the nation and helmed by an extraordinary quarterback backed by gifted players and a sharp coaching staff.
A second straight BCS bowl bid is there for the taking. That’s the only big fish that really matters.
For Kentucky, even a minor bowl bid looks like Moby Dick. But that has more to do with their gruesome schedule than their football aptitude, which has improved sharply since Mark Stoops came to town.
UK has good coaches. It just needs better players. Recruiting gurus say a bunch of them are on the way.
The future is bright in Lexington, even if thunderclouds are boiling on the immediate horizon. The Wildcats have this Saturday off then begin a three-week stretch with a forecast so grim that Jim Cantore has probably applied for press credentials.
A visit to No. 13 South Carolina is bracketed by home games against No. 18 Florida and No. 1 Alabama — three of the most physical teams in the nation. Rock you like a hurricane.
UK could continue to get better and have nothing but concussions and contusions to show for it. The Cats and Cards’ schedules have never been such polar opposites. While U of L worries about PR, UK hopes to stay out of the ER.
One reason why U of L fans aren’t overjoyed with Saturday’s win is that they know UK contributed greatly to its own demise. Three turnovers. Eight dropped passes. Zero-for-13 on third down.
U of L’s defense had a hand in those gaffes, but many were self-inflicted. UK offensive coordinator called crafty plays; UK quarterback Maxwell Smith threw sharp passes. Didn’t matter. UK receivers wear gloves dipped in leather-repellent flubber.
That will change some day. Stoops will find receivers with soft hands and a quarterback who doesn’t have a glass arm.
The Governor’s Cup will be legitimately up for grabs.