Cardinals offense nearly perfect

Originally Published: December 1, 2004
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- It's not Kerry Rhodes' fault.

He is the Louisville Cardinals' best defensive back, leading the team with five interceptions. He is a bright, jovial, well-spoken young man and a team leader. His improved play this year is a big reason for the Cards' defensive renaissance.

But it's the one that got away from Rhodes that flickers on memory's replay screens in this town, as fans and players try to get excited about a third Liberty Bowl bid in the last five years.

The one that got away has turned out to be a $15 million dropped interception.

Bobby Petrino
LOUISVILLE, KY - NOVEMBER 10: Head coach Bobby Petrino of Louisville watches his team against TCU from the sidelines at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium on November 10, 2004 in Louisville, Kentucky.
If Rhodes catches the lollipop that Miami Hurricanes quarterback Brock Berlin threw squarely into his chest in the final minutes in the Orange Bowl, with Louisville leading Miami 38-34, it's game over, stunning upset in the books. And today the Cardinals are 10-0. And ranked ahead of Utah in the BCS standings. And being saluted as the barrier breaker. And they're likely on their way to Fantasyland: the Fiesta Bowl, the Sugar Bowl or the Rose Bowl.

Utah made every play it needed to reach Fantasyland. Louisville came up one play short. That's why, of all the teams playing the BCS iffin' game, the Cardinals lead the list.

"We're still very disappointed thinking about what could have been," coach Bobby Petrino said. "We did a lot of great things in that game, but we didn't close out the game like we've done all season.

"But like we told the players after the game, you need to forget about it and move on. You can't dwell on those things. ... But that loss still stings a little, knowing where we are right now and what these players have accomplished this year."

That's the razor-thin margin for the Louisvilles of college football. That's the margin between hitting the BCS jackpot or hitting the Interstate for another six-hour drive to a town and a bowl that holds all the mystery of the back of your hand. The Liberty Bowl date with Boise State should produce a terrific game, possibly the shootout of the year -- but the Cardinals enter it knowing that the best season in school history still isn't enough to earn a trip to one of college football's glamour addresses.

An eight-team playoff would seem the answer for a Louisville team on the outside looking in, dying for a chance to prove itself against the elite. But Petrino remains a supporter of the bowl system.

"The season is really long," he said. "It puts a tremendous amount of stress, mentally, on our players. ... Let's make our conference championships a big deal and the bowl games a reward."

Great idea, but Louisville so narrowly missed out on the big reward.

It would be wrong to blame that on one player, especially when there were other moments of stark regret from that Miami game: punting to incendiary return man Devin Hester, who ran one 78 yards for a touchdown; a fumbled snap by Stefan LeFors that led to a Miami score; poor use of timeouts in the final 90 seconds. But poor Kerry Rhodes had the play that won't go away.

Berlin's badly overthrown pass hit No. 19 between the 1 and the 9 with an audible thud, then cartwheeled off his fingertips, then beat his lunging hands to the turf. Several plays later the Hurricanes scored the winning touchdown.

"I know that's one of those plays that I'll never forget," Rhodes told The Courier-Journal. "You have to put it out of your mind and go on with things, but you know that you'll always remember it."

Funny thing: Louisville left the game defeated but exalted, having proven their worth to a national ESPN audience. The Cardinals were so impressive that they actually moved up in the rankings after the loss.

And everything they have done since then has been a validation. Louisville has savaged everyone it has played offensively, and enters its regular-season finale at Tulane on a roll of epic proportion.

The operative braggadocio in Oklahoma during the Barry Switzer glory years was "hanging half a hundred" on the scoreboard.

In the past month, Louisville has outdone Boomer Sooner. They're hanging half a century of unrivaled scoring on America.

The new offensive orgy standard is the double nickel. In their last four games, the Cards have scored 55 on TCU, 55 on East Carolina, 63 on Houston and 70 last Saturday on bowl-bound Cincinnati.

Switzer's wishbone juggernauts never did that. Neither has anyone else since the advent of the facemask.

Near as anyone can figure, the last time a Division I-A team scored 55 or more in four straight games? Try Alabama in 1945. So long ago that it predates Bear Bryant.

On their way to a 10-0 season 49 years ago, the Crimson Tide rang up 60 on Kentucky (a game played in Louisville, coincidentally), 71 on Vanderbilt, 55 on Pensacola Naval Air Station and 55 on Mississippi State.

And, astonishingly, nobody has done it since. Not Fun 'N' Gun. Not the Run-and-Shoot. Neither did the BYU passing machines or the Nebraska running machines. Not the West Coast offense or the spread or the veer.

Now comes an offense masterminded by a second-year head coach (Bobby Petrino) and his little brother (coordinator Paul), both of whom learned the game from their dad (a celebrated former coach at Carroll College) in the Montana hinterlands. The offense is led by a fifth-year senior quarterback no one wanted coming out of high school (LeFors). The running game is paced by a Florida State transfer (Eric Shelton) and a former quarterback (Michael Bush). The receiving corps counts among its key members a transfer from Tennessee (Montrell Jones), a backup basketball player who changed his name (Joshua "Don't Call Me Greg Anymore" Tinch) and a walk-on tight end (Adam McCauley).

If the individual parts don't dilate your pupils, the sum of the parts will.

Heading into a Saturday game against defensive sieve Tulane, the Cards are averaging 49.8 points per game, the most in Division I-A since Nebraska's 1995 national champions averaged 52.4. Their average gain per play is 7.4 yards, just half a yard less than the NCAA record of 7.9, set by the Blanchard-Davis Army team of 1945. They're not far behind Tulane's 1998 NCAA record for team passing efficiency (184.4 for the Green Wave, 178.6 for the Cards), and LeFors is on pace to break Tulane QB Shaun King's individual pass efficiency record.

Against Cincinnati, the Cards scored six of their touchdowns in 18 plays. Louisville scored on its first play, an 80-yard run by Shelton that was so thoroughly blocked by the line that fullback Kolby Smith never had to touch anyone.

Paul Petrino predicted before the game that that play would go the distance. Why? Because he and his brother are strategy wonks, film geeks, who spend day and night scheming to get the right formation against the wrong defense at the right time.

That, in addition to the personnel, is what Louisville's offense is built upon: outsmarting and outmaneuvering opponents. That's why the Cardinals employ a dizzying number of formations and personnel groupings, looking for the setup that leaves a defense outnumbered on one side of the field.

"I never have any questions in my mind at all," LeFors said of the gameplan. "Every play we put in, every new wrinkle, I have full confidence. They spend so much time in the office breaking down film that I know everything they put in is for a reason."

The gameplan is generally molded Sunday through Wednesday. Then comes what Paul Petrino calls "Perfect Thursday."

That's the day when Louisville runs its gameplan against the scout-team defense, starting with its opening eight-play script and then going through special situations and other plays it thinks will work.

"Each Thursday practice we run through our offensive script during practice," Bobby Petrino said. "We want to do everything perfectly. We don't want any dropped passes, fumbles or missed assignments. We want to execute in practice like we hope to do when we get into the game. It's a mindset that we want to instill into our players."

Said LeFors: "After that day, it's all mental."

And the hay is not all in the barn, to refute a coaching cliché. On Friday the offense watches its Perfect Thursday videotape, then walks through the plays again. Saturday at the team hotel, they run a pregame "clap drill," going through every formation and play in a ballroom, with chairs set up as the defense.

Then Perfect Thursday plays out as Perfect Saturday. And none were more perfect than last Saturday's blitzing of Cincinnati.

Afterward the Liberty Bowl bid was offered and accepted. Petrino could feel the mixed emotions from his team.

"We took the bid, but the players still had that thought in their mind that we have a darned good team," he said. "And there's the BCS out there."

A $15 million interception away.

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