Louisville entered its game against Houston on Thursday night entrenched in the College Football Playoff mix. But the Cardinals left the Lone Star State as just another CFP pretender.
Louisville entered its Thursday night showdown at Houston ranked No. 5 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, firmly in the mix as a major player in the race for one of four national semifinal berths.
As early as the opening kickoff, though, it was clear that the CFP wasn’t in the cards for Bobby Petrino’s squad in 2016.
The mistake-prone Cardinals (9-2) fumbled the opening kickoff, and Cougars quarterback Greg Ward Jr. threw a touchdown pass on the next play to begin a dominant performance by Tom Herman’s squad. Cardinals running back Brandon Radcliff lost a fumble later in the first quarter, with Houston adding a field goal on the ensuing drive to make it 10-0. And the rout was on.
“We blew it,” Petrino flatly told reporters after the game.
Running back Duke Catalon scored three touchdowns, and the Houston defense swarmed Heisman Trophy favorite Lamar Jackson all evening in a shocking 36-10 victory at TDECU Stadium that ended The Cardinals’ CFP hopes.
Louisville’s No. 5 spot in the latest CFP rankings may have rankled some members of the Cardinals program considering all of the chaos that swept through the college football world last week. Still, the Cards were inching closer to the Top 4 and needed a strong effort on a national stage. Instead, they came out very flat and had their worst performance of the season. Louisville set a season-high with 15 penalties, punted a season-high six times by the break and found itself down 31-0 at the half. It was the fewest points that the Cards had scored since a loss at North Carolina in 2011.
Cougars defensive coordinator Todd Orlando and his staff dialed up a beautiful game plan to thwart the Cardinals’ high-powered offense. Houston was able to get consistent pressure on Jackson, as the Louisville offensive line was confused by a wide array of blitzes. Orlando mixed and matched sending a linebacker, safety or corner as a fifth rusher throughout the night, and the Cougars were able to rack up a staggering 11 sacks, led by stud freshman defensive tackle Ed Oliver. After all of the sack yardage was taken into account, Jackson finished with a season-low 33 yards on the ground.
Houston found the best way to defend the Heisman leader: be aggressive and force him to make a play instead of staying back and letting him pick and choose where to deliver the football. Jackson threw for 211 yards and a touchdown, but the score did not occur until the second half. Louisville ran 83 plays for 312 total yards, averaging just 3.8 yards per snap, which was less than half of its season average of 7.8 heading into the game.
Despite losses to Navy and SMU, Houston proved it can play with anybody in the country when on its “A” game. This is why Herman will be such a hot commodity whenever the coaching carousel spins.
Meanwhile, Jackson was forced to essentially beat the Cougars by himself, as he didn’t get much help from his teammates on Thursday night. Was being in the CFP race too much pressure for the Cardinals to bear?
If it was, they don’t have to worry any longer about the new rankings on Tuesday night. Jackson and Co. were undeniably knocked out of the race by a team that had its own designs on a CFP run earlier in the year when it was undefeated and had a win over Oklahoma to its credit.
If the Cards weren’t happy with their status of No. 5 this week, they will only have themselves to blame after looking like anything but a national title contender against the Cougars.
Although its playoff dreams are finished, Louisville appears to be in line for the ACC’s spot in the Orange Bowl. While that is not a part of the CFP this season, it’s still an improvement from last year’s 8-5 squad that made the Music City Bowl. It’s also a nice step for a team not too far removed from stints in Conference USA and the American Athletic Conference.
Still, there’s no doubt that Thursday night was a missed opportunity for Petrino’s club, and it should provide plenty of offseason motivation heading into the 2017 campaign.