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Austin Murphy
October 02, 1989
By playing West Virginia tough, Louisville's Cardinals showed that their days of imitation football were behind them
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October 02, 1989

Say Goodbye To Fallball

By playing West Virginia tough, Louisville's Cardinals showed that their days of imitation football were behind them

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Andy Higgs could have been bronzed, put in a museum and titled the Sulker. Elbow on knee, chin on wrist, Higgs, a Louisville defensive tackle, sat on a stool in the middle of an otherwise deserted locker room after the Cardinals' 30-21 loss last Saturday to West Virginia. It made no difference to Higgs that others, including his own coach, regarded the outcome as a moral victory. His eyes were moist, and every so often he would shake his head in disbelief. "That guy is incredible," said Higgs. "He is for real. He is a leader of men."

That guy was Mountaineer quarterback Major Harris, whose Houdini-like escapes from Higgs and his cohorts were all that prevented Louisville from pulling off a major upset. The once moribund Cardinals had played a Top 20 team tough, and for the second time in four games West Virginia, which is 4-0, had to rally in the fourth quarter to defeat an unranked team. "Last year we played for a national championship, so this year we have a big X on our chest," said Mountaineer coach Don Nehlen, whose team lost to No. 1-ranked Notre Dame in last season's Fiesta Bowl. Nehlen implied that Louisville had played well over its head. "Can they play that kind of emotion-pitched football every week?" he said. Nehlen ought to be asking himself some more fundamental questions, such as, How long can Harris compensate for an inconsistent offensive line and a pliable defense?

Between his broken-field runs and radar-guided, across-the-body aerials, Harris had a hand in 318 of West Virginia's 471 yards against Louisville. But the most remarkable Harris stat was the number of times he was sacked—once, for a loss of three yards. Considering that Cardinals defenders spent much of the game gnawing on his ankles, Harris ought to have gone down at least as many times as his Louisville counterpart, Browning Nagle, who was sacked four times. The Cardinals' defensive ends lined up "cocked" (at an angle) and rushed hard. But even when they beat their blockers, they couldn't catch the elusive Harris.

Harris thrives on chaos. No matter that all five of his offensive linemen from last season are gone; no matter that their replacements have yet to jell. Harris's completion percentage swells when the play is broken and he can feel the breath of a blitzing linebacker, when his receivers are improvising and the field has become his private sandlot. Of the 16 passes Harris completed on Saturday, five were thrown while he was in the grasp of at least one defender. "When I'm back to pass, I'm looking down-field," said Harris. "I'm not paying attention to what's going on around me."

"He threw a few out of the well, and his receivers came up with them," said Louisville coach Howard Schnellenberger, whose postgame remarks hardly sounded like those of a losing coach. "So we lost our virginity today," he said of his 2-1 team. "No one expected us to go undefeated—except maybe me, in the deepest recesses of my mind."

Schnellenberger was tickled that his Cardinals had kept the score close. The day before the game, he noted that the Mountaineers were 11-point favorites and said, "I think the oddsmakers have it pegged just about right." After watching Nagle—who was playing with a badly sprained right big toe and could not scramble—throw four straight incompletions to kill Louisville's last chance to win, Schnellenberger said, "If you think you're going to get me to say one negative thing about this team, you're mistaken. This was one of the finest college football games in the country this week, and it happened right here in Louisville, Kentucky."

When Schnellenberger arrived in Louisville five years ago, after having won the national championship at Miami, Cardinals football was so bad that the people in charge of ticket sales avoided referring to their product as football. "We'd sell the band, the atmosphere, the game as a social event," says athletic director Bill Olsen of those dark days. "We called it fallball." Hey, Kentuckians! Hoops season's just around the corner, so why not take in some fallball and limber up your vocal cords!

By hiring Schnellenberger, Louisville proclaimed it was serious about turning its football program around. At Miami, Schnellenberger was an unyielding taskmaster, and he was not about to go easy on his new charges. After his first spring practice 30 players left the team. "We hit so much I had difficulty eating and getting to classes," says one survivor, former defensive back Jeff Pointer. "We would practice for three hours, and if we did something to displease him, he'd make us start practice over."

Louisville won a total of eight games in Schnellenberger's first three seasons, before turning the corner with last year's 8-3 record. Losses that particularly galled Schnellenberger often resulted in Sunday morning practices—most of them in full pads.

Louisville's first game under Schnellenberger was at West Virginia; the Mountaineers won 52-13. So Schnellenberger preferred to view last Saturday's nine-point defeat from a look-how-far-we've-come perspective. "This was a one-point game," he said, pointing out that West Virginia's final touchdown came with 1:26 remaining, after the issue had been decided. "The fact that we did not win does not detract from the event."

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