The Meaning of College Gameday for University of Louisville

By Hank Duncan

College Gameday is the ultimate showcase of college football.  Every Saturday, ESPN and the gameday crew hit the road to travel to the most enticing matchup of the weekend.  Once they arrive in town, chaos ensues.  The national spotlight shines on the host college, restaurants and businesses are packed, and the fans bring mayhem to the scene.

This weekend, College Gameday heads to Louisville as the Cardinals take on the Florida State Seminoles.  This matchup of a rising competitor versus a perennial powerhouse will certainly be one to watch.  Louisville QB Lamar Jackson has burst onto the Heisman radar early this year.  In only two games, Jackson already has 1,015 total yards and 13 total touchdowns.  He is a dual-threat machine who has the potential to dispatch any opposing defense.  Check out this video showing just a glimpse of what he is capable of.

Cardinal’s coach Bobby Petrino has a reputation of grooming talented quarterbacks into some of the best in the nation.  He has even transformed mediocre quarterbacks into solid game managers who are able to take the game into their hands. Stefan Lefors, a backup quarterback entering his junior season as Petrino came to Louisville, was not highly regarded.  However, Petrino coached him up to be the 2004 Conference USA Player of the Year and an eventual 4th round NFL draft pick.  From his first stint at coaching Louisville, to now at his second opportunity with the Cards, he has continually demonstrated the ability to develop quarterbacks in to defense-crushing machines.

Starting Quarterbacks at University of Louisville under Bobby Petrino

Years Name Completions Attempts CMP% Pass Yards (Rush) TD INT
2003-  2004 Stefan Lefors 408 614 66.4% 5,741 37 13
2004- 2007 Brian Brohm 780 1185 65.8% 10,775 79 24
2014 Will Gardner 127 221 57.5% 1,669 12 3
2014- 2015 Reggie Bonnafon 75 144 52.0% 1,056 (331) 7 5
2014- 2015 Kyle Bolin 133 228 58.3% 1,995 13 10
2015- 2016 Lamar Jackson 172 309 55.7% 2,537 (1,278) 36 9

Lamar Jackson, who just began his sophomore year of college, is on pace to shatter the records of every other Bobby Petrino quarterback.  This includes 2007 Heisman candidate and former Buffalo Bills’ quarterback, Brian Brohm.  If Jackson continues to dominate against Florida State, he will be a shoo-in for Heisman consideration.

Outside of nationally-recognized quarterbacks, University of Louisville has made a mark on the college football landscape by rising in the rankings almost every year for the last 18 seasons.  After Howard Schnellenberger left in 1994 for Oklahoma, the UofL football program was lost.  Schnellenberger single-handedly kept the Cards on the FBS level and allowed them to climb up the college football ladder to reach Conference USA.  But without him, nobody knew how the football program would succeed.  In 1995, the Cards hired Ron Cooper, who failed miserably.  He went 13-20 in three seasons and was fired.  

After the hire of John L. Smith  in 1998 however, the program started its perennial rise to the top of college football. Smith reached a bowl game in each of his five seasons at UofL.  Five bowl games in a row was unheard of for any Cards fan.  He succeeded so much that Michigan State offered him a job after the 2002 season, which he accepted.

And then came Bobby Petrino.  After two straight bowl appearances to kick off Petrino’s career at UofL, the Cards got the nod to enter the once-formidable Big East.  Once entered, they wasted no time in making a mark.  The Cards finished second in the Big East and played Virginia Tech in the Gator Bowl in 2005.

However, the 2006 season is where Louisville showed the country just how well they can play.  After a dominating performance against 3rd ranked West Virginia, undefeated Louisville just had to beat #15 Rutgers the following week to essentially guarantee a spot in the BCS National Championship.  After blowing an 18 point lead in the second half with Ray Rice running all over UofL to set up a game-winning field goal with 18 seconds left, this happened.

As Chris Fowler rightly said, “It’s bye-bye BCS for Louisville.”  Yes, the Cards ended up in the Orange Bowl and knocked off Wake Forest, but that season could and should have been much, much more.

After Petrino suddenly bolted for the Atlanta Falcons, UofL fell into their old place of being a punching bag.  Steve Kragthorpe was put into an impossible situation with trying to match the previous year’s Orange Bowl performance.  He failed to even make one bowl game while in his three years at Louisville.  After an underwhelming 15-21 record at UofL, he was let go.  

Although the Louisville program was not in high spirits, their drought would not last long.  After the firing of Kragthorpe, the Cards hired longtime Florida defensive coordinator, Charlie Strong.  Strong became known around Louisville for his recruiting connections in Miami and the rest of Florida.  This quickly became apparent on the field as almost every starter on the field was from the Miami area including now NFL receivers Devante Parker and Eli Rogers, and Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.  Strong took Louisville back to the top of the Big East and culminated his coaching career at Louisville with a Sugar Bowl victory over his former team, Florida.

After the 2013 Russell Athletic Bowl victory, Strong continued a tradition of former UofL football coaches and moved on to a school with more tradition.  In the past it had been Indiana, Oklahoma, and Michigan State.  In Strong’s case, it was Texas.  As a result, UofL looked around for a new coach to continue this upward momentum.  After a three week search, the Cards found their man:  Bobby Petrino.

Petrino, coming back after scandals in Atlanta and Arkansas, showed that he would not leave Louisville again by signing a contract that included a $10 million buyout.  Now, in Petrino’s third season of his second stint, he has already made his mark again by beating Notre Dame in South Bend and dominating Texas A&M in last year’s Music City Bowl.

With a 2-0 record to start the season and already a #10 ranking, this Saturday’s game versus Florida State is UofL’s most important regular season game since that fateful day in Piscataway, New Jersey ten years ago.  If the Cards beat Florida State, there is no question they will be in the College Football Playoff consideration.  Louisville has the same coach that almost took them to the championship before along with a new star quarterback to lead the team to it.  They have the national spotlight shining right on top of them.  The stars are aligning and, if Louisville can pull of the upset, it might be their year to hold up the trophy on January 9th.

*All statistics provided by ESPN


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