Now that there have been a couple of days to process Louisville’s gutsy win over Texas A&M in the Music City Bowl, it seems like a good time to start taking a look back at the Cardinals 2015 football season. The Cardinals would start the 2015 season after losing one of the winningest senior classes in college football. The gamble to bring back a proven winner to the program has paid off and Coach Bobby Petrino was able to lead this Cardinal team to 8 wins and another trip to a bowl game in his second season back. What makes this second year back even more impressive is that he did it with a roster full of so many young players and a completely rebuilt offensive line. Might be one of his best efforts as the Cardinals Head man.
Let’s take a look back at the Cardinals 2015 season from a birds-eye view (pun intended). I can’t think of a football season in my lifetime that I had been more excited about than this one. A big reason why is the Cardinals had some big-time games on the schedule that included a football season opener against SEC powerhouse Auburn. Gone are the days of playing schools with little or no football tradition. We continued to embark on a whole new journey with this team.
Louisville’s season would start with a Bobby Petrino homecoming in Atlanta and it was obvious in the first game against Auburn that this would be a season defined by a youth movement. The Cardinals played seven true freshman in the season opener Lamar Jackson, Jaire Alexander, Traveon Samuel, Geron Christian, Devante Peete, Jaylen Smith, and Kenny Thomas. 82% of Louisville’s receiving yards went to guys playing their first Louisville game. Peete had 60 yards, Smith had 34 yards, Samuel had 22 yards, Crum had 19 yards and Savage had 2 yards. And there was the true freshman QB Lamar Jackson who came in and took over the game. He reeled off 100 yards through the air and 106 yards on the ground with 1 touchdown. It was tough to lose that first one but most Cardinal fans came away optimistic.
That optimism would quickly turn to skepticism as the Cardinals would lose their next two games against Houston and Clemson to start the season 0-3. The offense was brutal at times for the Cardinals during this stretch, as three different quarterbacks were shuffled in and out behind a poor performing offensive line. The search for any kind of offensive consistency was on. Cardinal fans hadn’t experienced a losing streak like this since the failed experiment that was Kragthorpe and the naysayers were out in full force.
We knew then and we know now that there was no shame in losing to Auburn, Houston or Clemson. All of these teams are very well coached and have solid athletes on both sides of the ball. The shame is in how our team lacked the passion and intensity at times in these games. The sting of a 0-3 start had filtered down and these young guys needed a win. They would get that Morale building victory against Samford. Guys on both sides of the ball really went after it in this game and you could see the switch turn on for both units. The defense made stops and the offense made plays. It was good to hear the roar in that Louisville locker room for the first time of the year.
Louisville started 0-3 before the romp against Samford, and Lamar Jackson had set a school record for rushing yards (184) by a quarterback in that one. Then against NCState to avoid a 0-2 conference start he rushed for 203 yards against the nation’s No. 3-ranked total defense at the time to help him set the program’s single-season rushing mark for a quarterback after just five games. Now the Cardinals had won two straight to build some momentum, and a star was emerging in the Cardinals backfield.
The Cardinals carried a lot of positive momentum into the big showdown with Florida State but it was quickly doused as they were routed in the Doak by a score of 41-21. Two big turnovers derailed any fight the offense had in them and Dalvin Cook had two touchdowns, including a 54-yard score where he broke four Louisville tackles breaking the Cardinals defensive will on the opening drive of the third quarter. Several players including Devonte Fields were vocal after this loss and allowing 510 yards. They were disgusted with their lack of effort vowing it wouldn’t happen again for the rest of the season.
The defense made true on their pledge in the next game winning against Boston College holding them to one third down conversion in 14 attempts, just 79 yards of total offense and sacking them 8 times. The Cardinal offense also started to come around in this game with players like Jamari Staples and Javonte Bagley coming into their own. Reggie Bonnafon also took kindly to his new role. It was obvious after this game that effort would not be an issue moving forward.
The Cardinals would cruise to 3 more wins over Wake Forest, Syracuse, and Virginia becoming one of the ACC’s hottest teams. It would take a total team effort to do so. After the win over Wake Forest Lamar Jackson would be sidelined for a few games with injury, and Kyle Bolin would again emerge as a savior for Louisville posting a great outing against Syracuse with a season-high 362 yards and three touchdowns. The receiving attack cam alive with Staples, Quick and the Tight Ends posting over 400 yards. The rushing attack would also come to life during this stretch with Brandon Radcliff rushing for a career-high 146 yards and two touchdowns against Virginia.
That hot streak would come to an abrupt halt in the ACC finale against Pitt it was an obvious brain fart for the Louisville football team in the first half of that one. What had looked like a well-oiled machine at times during a four game winning streak all of a sudden looked like my grandpa’s 76 Ford Pinto. All you can really say about this game is that Louisville got beat.
That Cardinal brain fart continued through most of the first half of the Battle of the Bluegrass game against arch rival Kentucky but they came out of it pretty quick after the half as Lamar Jackson would emulate young Teddy Bridgewater in 2011 just completely romping over the Wildcats with 316 yards and three touchdowns leading the Cardinals erasing a halftime deficit with 31 unanswered points.
Jackson and the Cardinals carried this momentum into what was one of the best weeks of the football season the Music City Bowl. College football got a glimpse of what we have seen all season and got put on notice that this young, gutsy, resilient, and talented football team will be a force to reckon with in 2016. The Cardinals capped off a 0-3 start with an Oh wow moment beating Texas A&M claiming another Bowl trophy to go into the case. After taking Cardinal Fans on an up and down ride the Cardinals finished the regular season 8-5 and 5-3 in conference play.
I went back and forth on this one for a while. I had such a great time in Nashville during the Music City Bowl and it was great seeing our Cardinals perform well in front of a National Audience. Beating a great program like Texas A&M will go down as one of the best moments of the programs history and it will propel this young group into the 2016 season, but for me it was the second best moment. The best moment for me in 2015 was beating Kentucky for a 5th straight season in Commonwealth Stadium. Their fans are the biggest blowhards in college sports and when we were 0-3 to start the season they couldn’t talk about it enough. They were convinced like they have been for 5 years now that their pitiful program would finally be able to beat Louisville. But nope! It was just awesome how it happened spotting them 24 points and being there to see their faces as the Cardinals mounted the comeback. We ran their fans out of their own stadium faster than a hurricane evacuation (Hurricane Jackson). Hearing the band play the Alma Mater and watching as Cardinals fans celebrated in a Red filled Commonwealth stadium was as good as it got this season. It is also pretty special that a young Teddy Bridgewater started the current winning streak and freshman Lamar Jackson made sure it continues.
I kept telling myself during the three game losing streak that the Cardinals total margin of defeat was just 13 points and that it was lower than any three game losing streak in school history. We had not been blown out and had been in every game with a chance to win. We’ve got an exceptional group of freshman and they are the foundation of what will eventually be a good football team. But no matter how hard I tried I was really down. That 9 day period from the last loss to Clemson to the game against Samford was rough not only for me but every Cardinal fan that I knew. There has been a winning culture established in the Louisville football program. Losing 3 straight games now is unacceptable, and it was the worst moment of the 2015 season.
Even though I knew going into this season that the offensive line would struggle I really got down on them at times. But I never wavered in my faith that Coach Klenakis would get the issue resolved. He has proven time and time again that he can develop talent. The guy has coached 21 offensive linemen who have advanced to the NFL. Before coming to Louisville Klenakis was at Iowa State and in 2013 he had six different starters miss at least one game. He was forced to use nine different combinations that season. They ended up having two consecutive 500 yard games of total offense and the Cyclones finished the season with the 10th most points in school history. He has built offensive fronts at every coaching stop in his career and he will figure this out. I know he had to use at least nine different combinations this season but the hard work and effort finally paid off in the Music City Bowl when the Louisville Offensive line was responsible for several big holes that led to big plays and even a few touchdowns along with 307 yards rushing. On the Brandon Radcliff 27 yard gallop at the 14:51 mark in the 3rd quarter you could have drove the team bus through that hole. And even though Lamar Jackson looked like Tecmo Bowl Bo Jackson that night it was the offensive line that helped him get loose. My surprise moment for 2015 was watching our line have that great outing in the biggest game of the season. Kudos to those guys and to Coach Klenakis.
There were a lot of gutsy performances this season on the offensive side of the ball for the Cardinals, but nobody had more of them than Lamar Jackson. When you are blessed with a great player like Teddy Bridgewater you become very spoiled. We really missed not having that type of athlete on the field. And while they are different players Lamar Jackson has given us back that Teddy feeling again. When Hurricane Jackson tucks and takes off look out. He is just flat out electrifying when running the ball. He had four games this season in which he ran for at least 100 yards and threw for at least 100 yards, tied with Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and SMU’s Matt Davis for the most such games in the FBS. Three of these games came against the mighty SEC. He threw for 100 and ran for 106 against Auburn, threw for 130 and ran for 186 yards to lead Louisville to a comeback win over Kentucky, and threw for 227 yards against Texas A&M while running for 226 yards. He became only the third player in NCAA history to run and throw for over 200 yards in a Bowl game. His 960 rushing yards leads the team despite not playing on a full-time basis. He appeared in 12 games and started just seven of them. He finished second in ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year voting and is on his way to being a superstar. Looking forward to watching this kid for the next two years and he is my offensive MVP of the season.
As soon as the rest of the nation found out about UAB getting rid of their program coaches and assistant coaches from all over the country started to reach out to their players. Louisville’s offensive coordinator Garrick McGee didn’t waste any time in reaching out to Jamari Staples. That was a wise decision. Jamari missed the first four games of the season with an injury but didn’t waste any time establishing himself in the offensive scheme when he finally got his chance. His biggest game of the season came against Wake Forest when he had 133 yards with two touchdowns. He finished the season as the top receiver on the team with 638 yards and 3 touchdowns despite missing those first games and he moved the chains at critical moments many times. Glad he found another home here with our Cardinals and looking forward much more.
The only thing I love more than seeing a young man get a second chance is that young man taking that second chance and making the most of it. That’s exactly what Devonte Fields did this season at the University of Louisville. Fields had to learn the Louisville playbook on the fly, but even tougher than a crash course in Granthamology was catching up to the speed of the Louisville workouts. He had played a year of junior college before becoming a Cardinal but Fields was out of shape. He didn’t get any time in the Louisville off-season program, so Devonte essentially had to play his way into shape. And that’s just what he did. Over the final six games of the regular season, Fields racked up all 7.5 of his sacks and 15 of his 19 tackles for loss. In the Music City Bowl he had 8 tackles, 3 sacks and 2 pat downs. He finished the season with a team leading 10.5 sacks and 22 tackles for loss. He is 10th in the country in sacks and 1st in the country in tackles for loss. I’m personally very proud of this guy and he is a shining example of how you can turn your life around with the effort. He is my defensive player of the year and I hope I get to cheer for him in a Cardinal uniform for one more season.
One half of the bash brothers Keith Kelsey was a valuable leader on and off the field for the Cardinal defense. He served as a great ambassador at the ACC media days this season and is just one of many guys that has been more than just a football player to the Cardinal program. But he is a great defensive player. He finished this season with a team leading 107 tackles. After the other half of the bash brothers James Burgess got cheated out of his Bowl game by a bogus targeting call he helped rally his team in Music City Bowl with 7 tackles and 1 pat down. Another player I hope stays around another year and my honorable mention for defensive player of the year.
When Charlie Strong decided to leave the program Tom Jurich and other members of the Louisville administration were faced with a difficult decision. They had the choice to find a coach who was an up and coming unproven in the college ranks or go with the guy who had won here before. The second choice would bring a splattering of skepticism. The program had come too far since the last failed experiment of an unproven coach and Tom Jurich knew what he had to do to maintain the level of excellence that had been established. He did face a ton of backlash from the skeptics, but after watching his program win 17 games the last two seasons while facing their toughest schedules in years and becoming bowl eligible for a 6th straight season he has had the last laugh. I think he made the right choice and the excitement for Louisville football is at an all-time high. We have a lot of momentum heading into year number three of the Bobby Petrino sequel. We will possibly sign the best recruiting class in school history in February and should march another top 25 team on the field in April. I can’t wait to attend the signing day party and can’t wait to attend the first day of spring football practice. GO CARDS!