Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium expansion has begun

Editor’s Note: The following has been edited to include updated information on Messer Construction.

Most University of Louisville football fans are still attempting to recover from those two bitter losses at the end of the regular season. A disappointing end to what at times held the promise being the best season ever.

The hangover is a natural reaction to some dashed expectations and is only temporarily. Despite the trainwreck at the end, UofL football was in contention for a college football playoff spot for much of the season. Close to competing for a national championship. Sooner or later, fans will draw strength from that fact.

Messer Construction's command center has been set up outside Gate 9.
Messer Construction’s command center has been set up outside Gate 9.

That’s why Tom Jurich is moving ahead with the $55 million expansion plans for Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, which will include an additional 10,000 seats, including 1,000 club seats, 70 premium boxes and 12 exclusive field-level suites.

Construction crews have already been doing preliminary work on the lawn of the football complex just outside the stadium. Security fencing has been installed, some trees and shrubbery have been removed, and several holes have been dug, apparently for preliminary electrical work.

Coming to your stadium in August 2018.
Coming to your stadium in August 2018.

A Louisville-based unit of Messer Construction, which built the Thornton’s Academic Center for Excellence, has set up a command facility just outside Gate 9 on North side of the stadium.

Messer Construction also is involved in a major expansion of Audubon Hospital on Poplar Level Road, the Old Forester Distillery on Main Street, and Thornton’s new corporate headquarters on Old Henry Road.

Sports Information Director Kenny Klein confirmed that the crews began work on Monday, as Jurich had promised back in June when he announced an expected completion date of August 6, 2018. That would be about three weeks before the regular season home opener against Notre Dame.

Klein said the crews are doing preliminary preparatory work. “It will be a while before the heavy cranes arrive,” he said. “But, yes, the stadium expansion project is underway.”

Jackson fumble leads to another Louisville stumble

Was it just a couple of weeks ago that the University of Louisville football team was considered a serious contender for the 2016 college football playoffs? Reality took a while to catch up, shattering any and all illusions or disillusions.  

Kirk Herbstreit, of ESPN, had UofL listed third in his rankings back then, saying on air that he believed the Cardinals were capable of beating top-ranked Alabama. There were lots of people who agreed with him, including those who made Louisville third in the Associated Press poll.

Another rocky day for Lamar Jackson in the season finale (Cindy Rice Shelton photo).
Another rocky day for Lamar Jackson in the season finale (Cindy Rice Shelton photo).

Quarterback Lamar Jackson, like his University of Louisville football team, is looking all too fallible these days. Either he’s not as good as was once considered or most teams have figured out how to slow him down considerably.

Two weeks ago, Jackson was considered a virtual shew-in for Heisman Trophy honors, the “lock of all locks,” considered by Las Vegas to be a 1-50 favorite for college football’s most coveted award.  He was at that point considered all but invincible.

The outlook changed dramatically when Louisville fell victim to Houston in a devastating 36-10 loss, exposing all of UofL’s weaknesses, knocking the Cardinals out of any serious discussion about the nation’s best football teams this season.

Jackson a mere shadow of his national perception in the loss, managing to make only 20 of 43 passes while rushing for only 33 yards. His team would register only one touchdown while Jackson was getting sacked 11 times.

Just when one couldn’t imagine things getting any worse, things did get worse on Saturday. Louisville was knocked off by arch-rival Kentucky 41-38 before a crowd of 54,075 at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.

When he wasn’t scorching UK’s defense, Jackson was keeping the Wildcats in the game. He would have three costly interceptions and would cough up the ball in the final minute that would lead to the winning field goal.

UofL’s slumping performance in recent weeks, along with Jackson’s problems, may have an impact on the Heisman race. The national sports media, being what it is, thrives on creating drama when none may actually exist.

The Heisman Trophy is generally associated with winners and national contenders, with an individual player usually receiving a lot of credit for his team’s success. Louisville is free fall now, no longer in contention, plummeting in the polls. 

Jackson has not done himself any favors in the past two games, making many Heisman voters scratch their heads, looking for possible reasons to reconsider their votes.

Louisville football should know better against Kentucky

Las Vegas figured out several weeks ago that this University of Louisville football team is not quite what it appeared to be when the Cardinals tore Florida State a new one in that 63-20 runaway in the third game of the season.

Probably dawned on the oddsmakers in the first half of the game against Clemson, with UofL falling behind 28-10. Eleven penalties for 104 yards for the Cardinals in that game, along with five sacks, an interception and a couple of fumbles. 

Vegas continued to make UofL a decisive favorite in ensuing games, making the Cardinals a 30-point favorite over Duke. Louisville was saved by a missed field goal in that game, making it painstakingly obvious that UofL was lucky to eke out a 10-point win. Similar grinders followed against Virginia and Wake Forest.

Bobby Petrino eyeing sixth straight for UofL over Kentucky (Cindy Rice Shelton photo).
Bobby Petrino eyeing sixth straight for UofL over Kentucky (Cindy Rice Shelton photo).

So excuse us if we wonder about the acumen of the same Las Vegas oddsmakers in making Louisville a 24.5-point favorite over Kentucky this weekend. At this point in the season, it is insane to give UofL that much of an edge, especially after the humiliating loss to Houston exposed more weaknesses.

This particular group of UofL players has already proven they will relax, taking lightly-regarded opponents for granted when considered overwhelming favorites. They hear their fans lifting them up, putting down their opponents. Not to worry.

That’s usually followed by mistakes coming out of the gate, turnovers and false starts, guaranteeing the Cardinals will struggle to survive. In fact, that’s been the pattern with opponents this season, but over the past two seasons in games against UK.

This year the Wildcats bring two 1,000-yard rushers to Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, along with a mobile quarterback, and a couple of decent receivers. Equally important they hate Louisville and will be highly motivated, seeking to end a five-game losing streak.

Louisville has not seen running backs this season as powerful as Boom Williams and Benny Snell. Williams is averaging 7.1 yards per carry and Snell is right on his heels with 6 yards per carry. Jo Jo Kemp, a third running back, is averaging 5 yards per carry.

Have no doubt that UK will come armed a keep-Lamar Jackson-off-the-field game plan. All the bluster about how weak the Kentucky defense will be exposed as just that if Jackson gets off to another slow start. It would, in fact, be UofL’s worst nightmare.

Las Vegas should know no better by now.  UofL players and fans should know not to take Vegas seriously by now.

Louisville loses ground, blows rare opportunity at Houston

So much to play for for the University of Louisville football team. Such a blown opportunity.

A fumble on the opening kickoff setting the tone, however. Downhill from there for UofL in a long drawn-out 36-10 loss to Houston. A feeble, listless and humiliating performance at the worst possible time for the nation’s third-ranked team.

Bobby Petrino holding himself accountable for ugly loss.
Bobby Petrino holding himself accountable for ugly loss.

The loss not only knocking Louisville out of contention for the college playoffs this year but probably a chance for a top five pre-season rating for next year. A setback on so many levels for a program that was on the cusp of making history.

Maybe the players believed all they had to do was show up. That’s about all they did, looking unprepared and uninspired. Unnerved by the opening fumble, stalled by a series of false starts and three-and-outs, and intimidated by a raucous Houston crowd of 42, 822. Falling behind 31-0 at the half, chasing their tails in the second half.

An endless trail of deplorables:

— Quarterback Lamar Jackson sacked 10 times.

— Jackson completed only 20 of 43 passes.

— The offensive line had 11 false starts for 55 penalty yards.

— Jackson, Brandon Radcliff and Malik Williams with costly fumbles.

Jackson’s timing appeared to be off all night, probably due to the fact that he was running for his life most of the time. When he did have receivers open, the ball was bouncing off their chests, sailing over their heads or bouncing between their ankles.

Somewhat reminiscent of some recent games not getting off to good starts, sending Jackson into hurry-up mode and resulting in some unpredictable and panicky actions. Little doubt that opposing coaches are figuring out how to handle Jackson and Radcliff. They’ve also identified UofL’s offensive line as a major weakness, making it easier to control a predictable offense. 

The only good thing about this game was that UofL did not incur any significant physical injuries. Offset perhaps by some emotional scars.

“We got beat by their offense, we got beat by their defense, and we got beat by their special teams,” said Coach Bobby Petrino. “That was a bad job of coaching on my part. I didn’t do a good job of getting our team ready to play. The out-played us, they out-performed us, and they out-coached us.”

One more regular season game remaining, against a team that will be highly motivated against UofL. The Cardinals have won the last two games against the University of Kentucky but gotten off to terrible starts against the Wildcats. They had better come to play next Saturday.

Little Eli’s first University of Louisville football game

The text message arrived on the Friday night before the University of Louisville – Wake Forest football game, a friend of my son inquiring about the best way to get tickets. Eli, his 7-year-old son, was begging him to go to a UofL game.

“He just started watching football with me a couple of months ago,” said Andy Zehnder. “He didn’t know the rules or anything, but he got excited, making so much noise one night that he woke up his mom.”

Andy and Eli Zehnder at Eli's first UofL football game (Photo by Charlie Springer).
Andy and Eli Zehnder at Eli’s first UofL football game (Photo by Charlie Springer).

The Zehnder family lives an hour-and-a-half up I-75 in Union, Ky., and Andy already had other plans for the day, like taking Eli to a swim meet in Lexington that afternoon. But he wanted to get Eli to a UofL football game. Extra tickets? Scalpers? Stub Hub?

Turns out my wife Barbara had a cold  and wasn’t planning to go Saturday night. I had two extra tickets and was happy to make them available. Eli’s wish was going to come true.

The swim meet was running late and nothing was going right for the UofL football team and Eli was sleeping in the back when Andy finally found parking at a Floyd Street lot. UofL was losing fumbles, missing passes and taking sacks when they got to the seats midway through the second quarter.

Eli was an instant hit with surrounding fans on Row Z in Section 234. His smile was contagious, his questions about the game were genuine and he somehow knew Louisville was going to win that game.

It may have taken a while for UofL to get going, but not Eli. An elderly gentleman behind us had brought a cow bell, sharing it often with Eli. Every time the Cardinals did something positive, Eli was madly clanking the bell. The lady in front of him was high-fiving him every few seconds it seemed.

When UofL really got it going in the fourth quarter, Eli, with some help from his dad, was standing in his chair back or on the back of the seat in front of us. Eli with a permanent smile on his face, thrilled to be there, even happier that his football team was finally winning.

The last I saw of them, Andy and Eli were headed down the steps in the direction of the football field, hoping to high-five with UofL football players after the win. 

So happy to have been a part of it, having had similar experiences with my son and a grandson at their first UofL football games. An unbelievable night of football, a first-time experience for little Eli, and some incredible bonding moments between a father and son.