Cardinals enter Big East with serious BCS aspirations
Posted: Friday April 22, 2005 12:25PM; Updated: Friday April 22, 2005 3:52PM
Can Michael Bush and the Cardinals make a run all the way into the BCS?
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Drivers headed south on I-65 coming out of downtown Louisville this spring have been greeted by a billboard with the message: "THINK BIG." Only the "I" in "Think" is actually a picture of Cardinals quarterback Brian Brohm, and the "I" in "BIG" running back Michael Bush.
It's a catchy marketing slogan, and an appropriate one considering the current state of Louisville football. Not only are the Cardinals about to embark on their first season in a new conference, the Big East, but they're doing so fresh off an 11-1 season and a school-record No. 6 ranking, and with a roster considered even more talented than 2004's.
Thanks to its impending membership in a BCS-affiliated league, a program that just a few years ago was thrilled to be playing in the Motor City Bowl now has realistic aspirations of reaching the Sugar, Orange or ... don't laugh ... Rose Bowl national title game.
"We want to win a national championship here," said Louisville AD Tom Jurich. "Seven years ago, it sounded ridiculous, but now I think it's a legitimate goal."
Jurich's statement will surely be met with its share of skepticism, but not from anyone who watched the Cardinals' game against five-time national champ Miami last season. On a balmy Thursday night at the Orange Bowl, Louisville coach Bobby Petrino's inventive offense had the Hurricanes' renowned defense on their heels all night, gaining 507 yards and holding leads of 24-7, 31-14 and 38-34 before Brock Berlin led Miami on a game-winning touchdown drive in the final minute. Had safety Kerry Rhodes not dropped an easy interception earlier that same series, the Cardinals may have been looking at an undefeated season and BCS bowl berth.
Gone from last year's team, which led the nation in both total offense (539 yards per game) and scoring (49.8 points per game) and which during one five-game stretch never scored less than 55 points, are starting quarterback Stefan LeFors (73.5 percent completions), who led the country in pass efficiency, top receiver J.R. Russell (73 catches, 968 yards) and top rusher Eric Shelton (938 yards, 20 TDs). And yet, practices this spring -- which conclude with Friday night's spring game -- have shown no reason to believe the offense will be any less powerful.
Sophomore Brohm, the former USA Today high school offensive player of the year who spurned Tennessee and Notre Dame to play for his hometown school (where older brothers Jeff and Greg both played and are now on staff), has shown the same clockwork efficiency running Petrino's offense as LeFors, going a combined 38-of-59 for 460 yards and six touchdowns in his last two scrimmages. Tailbacks Bush (another hometown hero and former all-everything recruit) and Kolby Smith, both rising juniors, have demonstrated the same knack for power running as predecessors Shelton and Lionel Gates. And an already deep, veteran receiving corps, led by Joshua Tinch, Montrell Jones and Broderick Clark, has been boosted by the play of breakout star Mario Urrutia, a 6-foot-6 redshirt freshman who has been their top playmaker this spring, and speedy sophomore Harry Douglas.
And they'll be playing alongside four returning offensive line starters, including All-America candidate Travis Leffew.
"I think the ball will be all over the place this year," said Bush. "We have a lot more speed at the receiver spot. And Brian's getting everyone in the right position and right spot, he knows what's going on on the field, like a general."
All the offensive talent in the world, however, doesn't guarantee another season full of 55-7 blowouts for the Cardinals. Say what you want about the Big East, which was considerably down last season after losing heavyweights Miami and Virginia Tech to the ACC (Boston College will follow this fall), but it's a definite step up in competition from Conference USA. With Temple booted from the league after last season, there will be no Tulanes or Houstons to kick around anymore.
While Louisville will likely enter as the prohibitive favorite, Pittsburgh, which won the league with a young team last season, should be even stronger under former NFL head coach Dave Wannstedt, West Virginia has been a consistent winner under Rich Rodriguez and tradition-rich Syracuse could return to prominence under new head coach Greg Robinson. Connecticut is a rising program, and even Rutgers isn't nearly as hapless as it once was. In a challenging and somewhat bizarre schedule, the Cardinals play just three conference home games -- all in November -- while hosting non-conference games against Oregon State, North Carolina and upstart Florida Atlantic, the latter game marking the return of Howard Schnellenberger, who coached Louisville from 1985-94 and led them to the '91 Fiesta Bowl.