All year long, Charlie Strong preached sending the senior class out the right way by reaching a bowl game. After the opening game, it didn’t look too promising. After the next few, it seemed possible. Then with three games to go, it was within reach.
It took a win in the final game against Rutgers, but the Cards got their sixth win and found themselves in a bowl game. Then the message changed: send the seniors out with a win.
The Cards did just that, in a way that mirrored their first season under Charlie Strong. It didn’t look promising early. As the first half wore on, it became possible. By halftime, a win was within reach. They just needed to finish the game.
Just like they finished the season on the final day of the regular season, the Cards finished in the final minutes.
You can argue about which was the biggest play of the game, whether it was Chris Philpott’s game winning field goal, Johnny Patrick’s forced fumble which led to a game tying touchdown before halftime, or Jeremy Wright’s 95 yard kick-off return to tie the game in the 4th quarter.
Frankly, I think they all warrant play of the game honors, so I’ll talk about all three.
Johnny Patrick’s forced fumble was huge for momentum. The Cards could not have gotten off to a worse start. They were slow, could not execute on offense or defense, and were getting pushed around by Southern Miss. I must have yelled ‘calm down’ a half dozen times in the first five minutes.
They did, then remembered how to play football.
After Justin Burke hit Cameron Graham for the Cards’ first score, it seemed to relax the whole team. Yet, with about five minutes left to play in the first half, they were down 21-14 and USM was going to receive to start the second half.
No problem. Johnny Patrick was on it. After a short completion by USM’s Johdrick Morris, Patrick drilled him in the side, freeing the football for Antwon Canady to pounce on giving the Cards great field position to tie the game.
A few plays later, Bilal Powell found the endzone on a 6 yard TD run and the game was even just before halftime. It had to be deflating for USM to know they had the best start possible and were going into the break tied.
Even though the Cards had managed to get back in the game, they came out flat again to start the second half, particularly on offense. The defense hung tough and kept USM off the scoreboard by blocking a short field goal attempt.
As the fourth quarter began, Southern Miss was only a few yards away from going back in front. They scored on the first play of the quarter to take a 28-21 lead. With the way the UofL offense was looking, those 7 points seemed like 20.
Before you knew it, there was no need to worry. The special teams stepped up again. This time, it wasn’t a senior, but three freshmen who delivered.
Jeremy Wright took the kick-off after USM went back ahead and found an alley on the left side. As he approached midfield, he received a great hook block by Dominique Brown and broke to the outside.
As Wright went outside, Deon Rogers, who was pretty much standing still looking for someone to block, turned on his burners, raced out in front of Wright, became his personal body guard, and chaperoned him into the endzone for the score.
Quick side note. Rogers is a true freshman linebacker who ran step for step with Jeremy Wright on that kick-0ff return. If you get a chance, watch it again and look at the speed of Rogers, it’s pretty amazing.
With the game now tied at 28-28 and nearly the entire 4th quarter to go, this game was officially up for grabs.
The Cards offense finally got going and marched down the field, but they stalled around the 19 yard line. Even though they only needed a yard, Strong chose to attempt a field goal, which Philpott converted.
That was not an easy decision. The way the game was going, a 3 point advantage did not seem safe and if Charlie would have elected to go for it, I’m not sure I would have had a problem with it.
But the defense held, forcing Southern Miss to punt. The Cards got the ball back and were able to run the clock down to 14 seconds before having to punt. Philpott hit a beauty and SenorisePerry downed it at the 2 yard line with only 7 seconds left.
Even though I did not like the playcalling at all, the Cards got the win and at the end of the day, that’s all that matters.
What can you say about Charlie Strong’s debut season?
He took a group that not only went 4-8 last year, but it was a soft 4-8. There were times last year I think it’s fair to say the team quit during games. And I think if last year’s team were faced with the same 14-0 deficit to start the game, there was probably a good chance they fold.
Those days are long gone. Charlie Strong changed a lot in his first season, but I don’t think there was a bigger change than teaching these guys who to compete. His team competes for four quarters and when it gets tough, so do they.
We’ll look into the 2011 season shortly, but for now, celebrate Cardinal fans, the Louisville program is back.