This Saturday, the Louisville Cardinals will head to Chapel Hill to take on the North Carolina Tar Heels. Under normal circumstances, this might be one of the more heavily anticipated matchups of the season. A road conference game, against a Coastal team we don’t see every year, who won 8 games last year. Nevermind the fact that UNC is planning to roll out the school’s entire illustrious basketball history for the game, with Michael Jordan making an appearance, along with the 2017 National Championship team (this is a football game, right?). However, this game is receiving more attention as the game before the biggest game on Louisville’s schedule in 2017. Louisville, of course, will take on #3 Clemson just a week later in their home opener.
In the games directly before a team’s marquee matchup of the season, they must battle through several timeworn cliches. “Don’t overlook this team!” or “this is a trap game!” etc. And often times, it can be true. Sluggish starts, low scoring affairs, and even the dreaded upset can all be common symptoms of the game before a big game. But just as often, teams don’t fall victim to this trap. Sometimes it comes the week after. Maybe in two weeks I’ll phone it in and write an identical piece about letdown games at Louisville the week after a big game. Who can say?
But has it really been an issue at Louisville? That’s what I want to explore today looking back at each Game Before the Big Game under Bobby Petrino for the Cards.
The Game Before: @ East Carolina
The Big Game: @ #12 TCU
I don’t remember this game, you don’t remember this game, but it happened. In Petrino’s first year at Louisville, the Cardinals entered this game 6-1, and left with a 36-20 victory against East Carolina. They ran the ball a lot, 118 yards from Eric Shelton, a rushing TD from Lionel Gates, and a 42 yard TD run from TJ Patterson to put the icing on the cake. This game certainly qualifies for the sluggish start, as Louisville and ECU were actually tied at 13 entering the 4th quarter, before the Cards scored 17 straight points to start the 4th period.
Of course, the Big Game is a little more memorable, as Nate Smith’s last second field goal bounced off the crossbar, and Louisville lost 31-28 to the Horned Frogs.
The Game Before: vs. East Carolina
The Big Game: @ #3 Miami
Same team, very different result. In Petrino’s second year, the undefeated Cardinals wasted no time dismantling the winless Pirates. They scored early and often, eventually winning by a margin of 59-7. The QB duo of Stefan LeFors and Brian Brohm combined to go 24/31 for 341 yards, 2 touchdowns and no interceptions. Eric Shelton again went over 100 yards and found the endzone 5 times. Louisville’s defence also picked off the ECU quarterbacks 3 times. Fun fact: running back Chris Johnson, aka CJ2K of Tennessee Titans fame, was ECU’s most efficient passer in this game, completing 1 pass on 1 attempt for zero yards, somehow good for a final QBR of 40.6.
Once more, this is much more memorable for the heartbreak experienced in the following game, as a dropped interception by Kerry Rhodes and a spectacular punt return from Devin Hester ended up being the only thing keeping the ‘04 Cards from an undefeated season, as they fell 41-38 to Miami.
The Game Before: vs. North Carolina
The Big Game: @ West Virginia
It turns out Petrino likes to pick on schools in the state of North Carolina the week before big games. While the stature of the opponent may have changed this year, the result did not, as Louisville cruised to a 69-14 victory over the Tar Heels. This was, at the time, the most points ever scored against UNC, and the nine touchdowns scored were also a record for a UNC opponent. I’m going to assume those records still stand. This attack was much more balanced out, with no one going over 100 rushing or receiving yards, but big names like Michael Bush, George Stripling, Montrell Jones and Mario Urrutia all finding the endzone, while Brian Brohm threw for over 300 yards. Elvis Dumervil also added two forced fumbles and an interception for the defense.
Unfortunately, for the third straight season, the previous week’s dominance did not lead to a win the week later, as Louisville fell in triple OT to West Virginia, 46-44, in a game better known for the breakout performances of Steve Slaton and Pat White.
The Game Before: @ Temple
The Big Game: vs. #17 Miami
The Game Before: @ Syracuse
The Big Game: vs. #3 West Virginia
Okay, so the 2006 Miami team was probably nowhere near as good as the 2006 WVU team, and they weren’t even ranked that close. But it didn’t feel right leaving off what was, at the time, the biggest game in program history off this list of big games. Once again, Louisville had no issues in their tuneup, destroying Temple on their own home field, 62-0. This was a season where Temple finished 1-11, where Louisville’s 62 point beatdown wasn’t too out of the ordinary. In fact just one week later they would lose again by a score of 62-0, to Minnesota. For Louisville, the next week also brought similar success, as they’d go on to get revenge on Miami, winning 31-7.
Before the West Virginia game, however, Louisville finally seemed to fall victim to looking ahead. Somewhat. Despite being a team that regularly scored 30+ points on much better opponents, Louisville only managed 28 points, in a 28-13 win over Syracuse. 165 rushing yards and 2 TDs from Kolby Smith are what ultimately put the Cards over the edge in this one. Interestingly, the week before that, they only managed 23 points against Cincinnati, suggesting they may have been looking forward for a few weeks. It was all worth it when the Cards knocked off WVU 44-34 in the infamous Black Out game. After falling short in the Big Game of each of Petrino’s first three seasons, the Cards had broke through twice in the 2006 season, to put themselves firmly in the National Championship conversation. Of course, we all know what happened a week later against Rutgers…
The Game Before: vs NC State
The Big Game: vs. #2 Florida State
Fast forward eight years, and Bobby Petrino is still taking care of North Carolina schools the week before a big game. This time it was NC State. While it was never a blowout, Louisville was able to control most of the game against a tough Wolfpack team, eventually winning 30-18. The running game again led the way, with Michael Dyer giving one of the best performances of his Louisville career, with over 170 yards and a TD. Gerod Holliman also pulled in an interception on his way to a record setting season, off of future NFL quarterback Jacoby Brissett.
The following games would follow the script of those early heartbreaks, as Louisville would jump out to a 21-0 lead against the defending National Champions, before ultimately falling to the Jameis Winston led Seminoles, 42-31.
The Game Before: vs. Houston
The Big Game: vs. #11 Clemson
This was a weird one. By the time Houston came to town, Louisville had already lost perhaps it’s biggest game of the year, against #6 Auburn in the season opener. Houston was viewed by most fans as a tough team, but really just a tuneup for the Cards before they faced another top 15 team in Clemson. Things did not work out that way. Greg Ward Jr. threw, and ran, all over the Cards for nearly 350 yards of total offense. The Cards meanwhile turned the ball over 4 times, and never could separate themselves. They did take a 31-27 lead with just 6:25 remaining, after Kyle Bolin replaced Reggie Bonnafon at QB, but Houston answered almost immediately, with a touchdown that put them up for good, on their way to a 34-31 victory.
Next week, with Kyle Bolin inserted as the starting QB, Louisville would again fall just 3 points shy, losing to Clemson 20-17, and start the season 0-3 for the first time since 1984. The very next week, true freshman Lamar Jackson would take over at quarterback, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The Game Before: @ Syracuse
The Big Game: vs. #2 Florida State
The Game Before: @ Marshall
The Big Game: @ #5 Clemson
You probably remember these games a little better. Louisville went into the Carrier Dome a week before their historic blowout of Florida State, and Lamar leaped onto the national scene with 610 total yards, in a 62-28 win. He pretty much had the Heisman won after the second game of the year, but put the award out of reach the next week, with 362 more yards and 5 touchdowns against the Seminoles.
Louisville had little time to rest, with just one game between FSU and their matchup at Clemson. The game against Marshall was a little more sluggish than the final score suggests. The Cards got out to a 28-0 lead, and eventually a 52-7 lead, but gave up 21 4th quarter points to make the final score 59-28. At one point Petrino memorably took all his starters out of the game, only to put them all right back in after the second team fumbled on their first play. This created one of the most nerve wracking drives for Cardinal fans in an otherwise meaningless situation, as we all held our breaths every time Lamar was touched. The following week Louisville would come one first down short of beating Clemson, falling 42-36. I don’t need to tell you anymore about this game. We all remember.
Record in the Game Before: 8-1
Record in the Big Game: 3-6
History shows that Bobby Petrino doesn’t allow his teams to overlook their opponents before a big game, not only winning 8 of the 9 games, but winning almost all of them in blowouts. The one exception being the odd 2015 Houston game, which was as much a letdown game after Auburn as anything.
Further, Louisville is 4-0 in such lead-up games under Petrino against schools from North Carolina, like the one they’ll face this weekend, including the 69-14 blowout of the Tar Heels in 2005.
The Cardinals have had much more trouble in the big games themselves, winning just 3 of the 9 contests. Suggesting, perhaps, that they should start overlooking their opponents the week before? Or maybe it just shows they are often playing very good teams in the big games, and you’re not going to win them all. One of the two, you decide.
What we can say for sure is that Petrino will have his boys ready for this weekend’s matchup and there likely won’t be any looking ahead to the rematch with Clemson.