Posted: 5:15 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013
By Mike Rutherford
There was no "Teddy Touchdown" the last time the Louisville football team ventured into Commonwealth Stadium, because the 2013 Heisman Trophy candidate had yet to throw one.
There were no grandiose thoughts of the biggest win in program history being just 16 months away, because the current Cardinals were a 1-1 team that had been picked to finish last in a bad Big East Conference. There were no unrelenting SEC powers for Charlie Strong to balk at, because he was a second-year coach who had already lost seven games, including his most recent, a troubling home defeat at the hands of Florida International. In-state domination smack talk from the fans? The Cards had lost four straight to the Cats, a streak which was almost universally projected to move to five.
Out of what was billed by many on both sides as the "least hyped" game in the history of the series came a shift in power, and a shift in the attitude, if not the direction, of the U of L football program.
To hear a Louisville or Kentucky fan tell it, the 2011 Battle for the Governor's Cup is the game where Teddy Bridgewater came off the bench, set the world on fire and began his march to superstardom. The truth is somewhere in there, but the plot isn't quite as made for Hollywood as either side remembers it.
It's true that Bridgewater, whose college career up until that point consisted of two completions for 14 yards and an interception, came into the game in the first half and helped lead Louisville to an upset victory. It's also true that he entered the game with a lead - thanks in part to starter Will Stein's largely forgotten strong play - and proceeded to complete a modest 10-of-18 passes for an equally modest 106 yards.
Still, it was the play and the poise of Bridgewater, as well as fellow true freshman DeVante Parker and a Dominique Brown who has playing his first full game as a running back, that made Louisville fans especially giddy over their first Governor's Cup victory in five years.
"This was a statement game for us," said Strong, who ran onto the field and leapt in the air following a game-securing stop on 4th down. "We needed this to get our program going in the right direction."
The young talent, the exciting and still relatively new coach, the upset element; all of it made the evening arguably the sweetest Louisville football fans had known since they'd watched their team win the Orange Bowl in January of 2007.
They say that sustained success or failure makes the years bleed together. If that's true, then it partially explains why the gap between any two-year span has always felt like a lifetime for the modern Cardinal football fan.
Though most of the lead actors in that 2011 upset - Strong, Bridgewater, Parker and Brown - will all be in Red once again when the Cards travel to Lexington on Saturday, there isn't much else that will look the same on the Louisville side.
Perhaps the most symbolic difference is the point spread from Las Vegas, which currently has Louisville pegged as a 12.5-point favorite to win their third straight game over Kentucky. Twelve and-a-half is also the exact same number the Wildcats were originally favored to win by at the beginning of the 2011 game week. And if you're looking for further evidence, that little No. 7 next to Louisville's name on the scoreboard will also speak pretty loudly about the distance traveled over the past 730 days.
Cardinal fans like to look at the 2011 win over Kentucky as a turning point, but I'm not sure that's accurate. That Louisville team would turn right around and lose at home to Marshall the next week dropping losing consecutive road games at North Carolina and at Cincinnati. The "turning point" label is probably more rightfully directed at an emotional Friday night win over Rutgers, which sparked U of L's run to a share of the Big East title and a Belk Bowl berth.
If anything, U of L's win in Lexington two years ago was a necessary checkpoint, something everyone involved with the program needed to accomplish or experience in order to be in the position they are right now. It wasn't an evening that left anyone associated with Cardinal football expecting to see what would take place over the course of the succeeding 16 months, but it made everyone believe it was possible again.
In a lot of ways, this Cardinal team is going back to the start on Saturday.