National stage for Louisville and Lamar Jackson

Bowl Art

Nothing like a bowl game to bring out the best in University of Louisville fans, thousands of them flocking to Nissan Stadium for the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl Nashville. The venue provides a ideal platform for helping the program return to being a national contender.

Saddled with one of the toughest starts in the recent history, UofL lost its first three games. A rugged first three games that included Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Classic in Atlanta, a Houston team that finished 14th with an 11-1 record, and Clemson, which was ranked No. 1 in all the national polls.

One of the most frustrating beginnings ever for Bobby Petrino, attempting to compete with inexperienced quarterbacks, the loss of seven NFL draft picks and a patched-together offensive line. Winning seven of the last nine games a reflection of his competence.

“It’s not something that we ever want to do again,” said Petrino this week. “We did not enjoy the experience at all. But we fought through it. What I tell them is, it’s all going to happen to them sometime in their life where things are not going to go good for a few weeks or three weeks or a month, and hopefully this experience helps them understand what you have to do to get by it.”

One of the keys for Louisville will be a sustained effort from start to finish.  Are you listening, defense? Can’t afford to take any time off, any mediocrity as occurred during some ugly halves against Florida State, Pittsburgh and Kentucky. Texas A&M has a deep and talented offensive lines that will be highly motivated in protecting third-string quarterback Jake Hubenak.

The Aggies also have a powerful running back in Tra Carson, a 6-foot-1, 240-pound senior with 4.4 speed, who rushed for 1,049 yards and six touchdowns this season.  His last game at Texas A&M ever, hoping to leave a lasting impression, the prototype of running backs who punished UofL during those regrettable defensive lapses.

The biggest question, however, is how effective Lamar Jackson, UofL’s freshman quarterback, will be against quality competition. He’s had a lot of ups and downs this season. His most impressive performance was against a mediocre Kentucky defense that allowed him to rush for 186 yards while passing for 130 yards. Texas A&M has had a month to get ready for Jackson and will be prepared for him. If Petrino is forced to fall back on Kyle Bolin, things will not have been going well for the Cards.

Lots at stake for both teams, Kevin Sumlin’s job at Texas A&M possibly on the line, Bobby Petrino needing this one to get his team in the national discussion again. After one challenging season, Louisville fans deserve a happy ending.

Louisville back in the win column

A win is a win is a win, especially satisfying when it’s the first one.

The University of Louisville football team badly needed a victory after three close losses. Something to celebrate, needing reassurance, a boost in confidence, and the Cardinals got all that in a 45-3 blowout of Samford University.

A crowd of 50,021 fans showing up at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, turning out in good numbers for a game against a non-marquee opponent. Rewarded with three UofL touchdowns in the first quarter, most of the partisans hanging around until midway in the fourth quarter.

Freshman quarterback Lamar Jackson needed this one, wanting to prove some things, catching up with the tempo of the college game, again displaying some of that dazzling speed. Setting an all-time UofL quarterback rushing record with 184 yards and two touchdowns while throwing for 212 yards and another touchdown.

James Quick needed this one, needing to get back in the action following his ankle injury three games ago, wanting to make a favorable impression, shaking off the uncertainty, pulling in three catches for 69 yards, teaming up with Jackson on a pass play for his 36-yard touchdown.

Reggie Bonnafon needed to play a role, the team utilizing his speed at other positions than quarterback, wanting to contribute, rushing for 41 yards while completing three of six passing attempts for 62 yards and a touchdown.

Coach Bobby Petrino needed this one, never having started a season losing his first three games, needing some positive to build on after losing four straight games (including the bowl game last season). Needing some things to go his way, needing a blowout to get things on the right track.

Petrino can’t keep changing quarterbacks

Two games into the 2015 college football season and the University of Louisville is winless. That’s going to change very soon or things could get crazy around here.

The last time UofL lost its first two games was in 1994 during Howard Schnellenberger’s 10th and final season in Louisville. No, not even Steve Kragthorpe stumbled out of the gate like this, believe it or not.

Kyle Bolin
Kyle Bolin

Too soon to know whether it’s the beginning of a trend. The two losses could just be coincidental and everything will turn out okay.  The time to panic will be if and when certain people around the program start talking about “righting the ship” and “doing things the right way,” or words to that effect.

Unless we have been completely delusional about Coach Bobby Petrino’s coaching abilities, that’s not going to happen. Petrino has no tolerance for losing. He’s pretty close to be backed into a corner. Don’t expect Mr. Nice Guy Lately to countenance anything short of total commitment. Back to the basics, expecting, demanding results.

Expect Petrino also has to settle this week on the quarterback he believes has the best chance of growing in his offense. The experimenting, the free lancing probably a thing of the past for now. He has to go with someone who understands his offensive philosophy and has the inherent skills and confidence to make it work. Right now that is probably Kyle Bolin, the redshirt sophomore.

We were thinking a week ago the answer was Lamar Jackson. He promptly went out and played like a typical freshman the next game, temporarily delaying what could turn out to be a brilliant career. Trying too hard, trying to do everything, losing his way against Houston.

Whoever the starting quarterback turns out to be, Petrino needs to stick with him through the good and bad times. Constantly changing quarterbacks suggests that he doesn’t have complete trust in any of them, and the other players recognize that, not knowing what to expect and needing confidence in their leadership.

Lamar Jackson and breakaway speed in Atlanta

Nice vacation for the most part, spending the first five days on the beach at Garden City, South Carolina, and then driving to Atlanta for the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic. Lots of beach time after the remnants of Hurricane Erika subsided.

A major downer during the week was those first 30 minutes against Auburn. The nightmare scenario. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong during that first half. Echoes from yesteryear, of opposing teams ramming the ball down our throats, of fumbles, interceptions, bobbles and uncertainties, wondering just how badly UofL would be demolished.

atlanta 75That was second only to the Atlanta traffic, especially going north on I-75 to the game, looking for the right exit, with nine or 10 lanes of traffic in each direction, everybody seemingly driving 85-to-90 miles per hour, even in the “slow” lanes. Having to forego help from the Google Map app, running out of data time on the I-phone. Pretty intimidating, missing the exit, finding it much easier to get there on the surface streets.

I-75 is either a speedway or a parking lot, depending on the time of day. No in-betweens.

What is it with every other driver exceeding 80 miles per hour plus these days? Even on these long, winding mountain roads through the Smokies around Knoxville. Not smart, guys.

Since we had driven to Garden City a week before the game, we missed the Cardinal caravan coming south from Louisville. But upon returning from Atlanta, every 10th car adorned with a UofL license plate. Many of them unable to resist the Pecans and Peaches billboards, congregating at roadside stops in south Tennessee. But $45 for a potato bag of pecans seemed a little steep, settling for chunks of divinity or pecan bars.

Lamar Jackson
Lamar Jackson

Despite the loss, most UofL fans glad they made the trip. That UofL comeback in the second half, with Lamar Jackson leading the charge, was something to behold. A positive finish against a top-10 team providing lots of reasons to be optimistic about the remainder of the season. UofL has had more than its share of exceptional quarterbacks but few with his speed and escapability.

The Lamar Jackson show alone was well worth the price of admission, capping off a near perfect vacation.

Petrino finds the future in loss to Auburn

Bobby Petrino leads his University of Louisville football team during Card March at the Georgia Dome.
Bobby Petrino leads his University of Louisville football team during Card March at the Georgia Dome.

Safe to say the University of Louisville has found a quarterback, and he appears to live up to all the ballyhoo, the rumors coming out of fall football camp. So good in fact that Bobby Petrino had him on the field for the first play from scrimmage.

Cat-like instincts, dazzling speed, football savvy, standing tall, delivering the ball, moving the offense with authority. Louisville may have lost the game, but the future appears to be very bright with Lamar Jackson calling signals.

Jackson wouldn’t line up under center at the start. That honor went to Reggie Bonnafon but the ball was snapped to Jackson, Petrino wanting his young freshman to get going early. Bad snap, forcing Jackson to run for his life, throw the ball into a crowd of Auburn defenders.

Jackson’s first pass attempt at UofL an interception, Auburn taking full advantage, scoring five plays later. Auburn would, in fact, race out to a 17-0 advantage in the first half with the young freshman relegated to the sideline.

He would reappear early in the third quarter after UofL had fallen behind 24-0 with a freshman performance that won’t soon be forgotten, completing nine of 20 passes for 100 yards and run for 106 yards himself, averaging 6.6 yards per carry.

Auburn couldn’t handle Jackson once he found his rhythm, moving the offense almost at will during the fourth quarter, cutting the deficit to the final score of 31-24. Fortunately for Auburn, the clock ran out. Few people in the crowd of 73,000-plus at the Georgia Dome believed Auburn could have withstood another drive.

Jackson is one of those quarterbacks who makes everyone around him better. Just ask Brandon Radcliff who was struggling in the first half, but started churning out the yardage when Jackson returned, accumulating most of his 76 yards in the second half.

UofL’s offensive linemen also looked better after Jackson returned, having struggled to give Bonnafon any daylight. Jackson creating most of his own, running the ball laterally and vertically while eluding the persistent Auburn defenders.

So that was what Bobby Petrino was so excited about with Lamar Jackson. He’s gotta be having some second thoughts about not getting Jackson back in the game earlier. But the coach should be confident that he has the quarterback who can take his offense to the next level.