Bush, Cardinals suffer brutally bad break

The season opener for Louisville RB Michael Bush started off like a dream, but in one awful instant, it dissolved into a nightmare, writes Pat Forde.

Updated: September 4, 2006, 10:48 AM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- If you could draw up the dream night for Michael Bush, it probably would have gone like this:

Begin your Heisman Trophy campaign by exploding 48 yards for a touchdown the first time you touch the ball your senior season. Showcase your newly improved acceleration by running away from defenders -- acceleration earned by the hardest off-season conditioning you've ever done.

Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesMichael Bush ran for 128 yards and three TDs before suffering a broken leg.
Continue pounding through and dancing around tacklers for two more touchdowns, establishing yourself as fully capable of repeating as the NCAA points-per-game champion. Show the 18 NFL scouts in attendance what a 245-pound back with nimble feet can do. Show them why you decided (reluctantly) to come back for your senior season -- to guarantee your status as a first-round draft pick.

Run smoothly and confidently for more than 100 yards in the first half against your in-state rival, ratcheting up your profile on national television. Wonder whether this dream night might end with 200 yards and four, five -- why not six? -- touchdowns.

And then, in a single awful instant, see the entire dream night dissolve into a nightmare.

After being tackled awkwardly by Kentucky linebacker Wesley Woodyard early in the third quarter, Michael Bush's season is over. Maybe his college career, too.

His right lower leg snapped, breaking both the tibia and fibula, and turning all those grand goals into cruelly unfulfilled promise. Long before the game was over, Michael Bush had been taken by ambulance to a Louisville hospital, where he underwent surgery to repair the leg at 7:30 Monday morning.

The injury rendered hollow what should have been a hugely successful night for the No. 13-ranked Cardinals, who opened the season by murdering their bitter in-state rival Kentucky 59-28 -- their fourth victory in a row over the Wildcats. Bush's brutally bad break clouded a bright future -- for him and for his team, which aspires to a Big East title, BCS bowl and maybe even a national title.

This sucked the joy right out of the night. Bush is a quiet, stoic, dead-solid young man, never in trouble and popular with his teammates, who voted him a team captain. He's also immensely popular with the fans -- a home-grown player from Male High School who turned down Ohio State, Auburn and dozens of others to help build the Cardinals into a Top 25 program.

"I feel terrible for him," said quarterback Brian Brohm, who tore his ACL the last time Louisville played in this stadium, last November.

"I'm not going back [to Lexington] until I see him," said stellar Kentucky receiver Keenan Burton, who attended rival Manual High but grew up with Bush and has been a close friend for years. "I hurt for him."

"Great kid," said running backs coach Greg Nord. "It's a shame."

AP Photo/Garry JonesThe Cardinal will have to carry on without running back Michael Bush in 2006.
"It hurts a lot because of how much work Michael put into this program," coach Bobby Petrino said. "And how much he's helped elevate us."

"My heart goes out to the kid, not just the player," Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich said. "He's such a great person. He came back for us."

Now the Cardinals will have to carry on without him. They have several other players who can run the ball -- senior Kolby Smith, sophomore George Stripling and true freshman Anthony Allen combined for 206 yards and three TDs Sunday night -- but nobody who runs it quite like Bush. The 215-pound Smith has moves and the 192-pound Stripling has speed, but both lack Bush's power. Allen, at 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds, showed some tantalizing between-the-tackles pop against Kentucky, but lacks experience and probably doesn't have Bush's shiftiness.

"Michael Bush is irreplaceable by one person," Brohm said. "But we've got a group of guys who can do it."

It's hard to take a player like Bush out of the lineup and still achieve what Louisville wants to achieve -- especially when teams like Miami (Sept. 16) and West Virginia (Nov. 2) loom ahead as potentially titanic home games. Louisville has recruited to the point that it now has quality depth in a lot of places -- especially on offense, especially at the skill positions. But we're still not talking about USC, Texas or Ohio State when it comes to reloading with prep All-Americans -- and Bush was one of those.

Nevertheless, Petrino adamantly stated that the Cards' lofty goals remain within reach.

"Certainly, I believe they are," Petrino said. "We just keep going. We've had a lot of injuries around here, and we don't talk about them too much. We keep going.

"It's something that's certainly devastating to him, and it certainly hurts our football team. But the one thing I know about Michael, he'll be back."

The injury was obviously immediately severe, as the 245-pound Bush writhed in pain on the Papa John's Cardinal Stadium turf. Louisville medical staff applied an inflatable cast to Bush's leg and he was carted off. Bush tried to rouse a stricken capacity crowd as he was taken off the field.

Louisville, ranked 13th in both polls, was leading 31-14 at the time. This marked the third significant leg injury suffered by a Louisville star in the last four games played on the artificial turf at PJCS.

Bush sprained his foot last Nov. 4 against Pittsburgh and missed Louisville's next two games. And in the home finale of 2005, quarterback Brohm blew out his knee. But nobody was ready to blame the FieldTurf.

"I don't think [it's an issue] at all," Petrino said. "I think that's the best possible surface you can play on -- you see people all over the country switching to it. In our four years here we've been very, very healthy."

Said Stripling: "I have no concerns about the turf. In football, anything can go wrong."

Sunday night, it did -- for Michael Bush and the Louisville Cardinals.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

ALSO SEE