Instant Analysis: Orange Bowl

Staff Columnist
Posted Jan 3, 2007

For three full quarters, the Wake Forest Demon Deacons looked an awful lot like the Rutgers roster that gave the Louisville Cardinals their only loss in 2006. But just when it seemed that Bobby Petrino's team was losing both confidence and stamina, the boys from the Bluegrass found the finishing kick of a Kentucky thoroughbred.

It didn't look very good for Louisville in the first minute of the fourth quarter in Tuesday night's Orange Bowl at Dolphin Stadium in Miami. The Cards' offensive line was getting decked by Wake's front seven, and Petrino--normally a superb play caller--was dealing a bad hand to his offense. Jim Grobe's little engine that could--a supremely resilient ballclub with more elbow grease than any other bowl team in America--was on the verge of winning despite a lack of eye-popping stats or thermonuclear offensive firepower. Louisville's offense had the firepower, but a better-coached Deacon defense played lights-out ball for the game's first 46 minutes. As Wake took a 13-10 lead just after the third-quarter break, the improbable became a distinct possibility: victory in the Orange Bowl might not have been in the Cards.

The heavy favorite from the Big East saw in Wake Forest a team that looked a lot like Rutgers, who defeated Louisville back on Nov. 9 in New Jersey. Like Greg Schiano's squad, the Deacons--coached by Grobe, Schiano's season-long rival for coach of the year honors--didn't possess imposing size or overwhelming athleticism. However, with tremendous preparation, a great scheme, and a high football IQ, the Deacs--who repeatedly found ways to win in 2006--put themselves in all the right positions against the Cardinals, stuffing Louisville's ground game while creating two turnovers.

As was the case against the Scarlet Knights nearly two months ago, Petrino stubbornly stuck with a run-first attack well into the second half because he simply refused to believe that his bigger, beefier offensive line could get dominated by Wake's undersized front seven. But that's exactly what was happening in a game Louisville could not afford to lose. A setback in the Orange Bowl, while severely reducing the national perception of the Big East Conference, would have prevented the Cards from elevating their status in the college football pecking order. The team that strained for years to finally make a BCS bowl game could not afford to lose in its first moment on the big stage. Something had to happen if the Ville was to avoid an ill feeling on the flight home from South Florida.

What happened, simply enough, was that Bobby Petrino got wise.

After over three quarters of run-first failures, the Louisville mastermind took a page from USC's second-half playbook in the Rose Bowl. After far too many first-down runs and weirdly timid flat passes that didn't exploit the matchup advantages posed by Louisville's athletic receivers, Petrino--in the fourth quarter--finally decided to put this game in the hands of his stud quarterback, Brian Brohm. Repeated passes down the field, and especially on first down, enabled Louisville's offensive front to concentrate on pass blocking, its strength. Brohm--put into third and medium situations all night long because of his team's ineffective first- and second-down running attack--was finally able to pass when Wake's defense wasn't expecting a pass. Louisville's sensational signal caller attained the rhythm that had eluded him for three quarters.

This parade of passes ultimately set up what would turn out to be the key play of the game. On a 3rd and 7 from the Wake 12 with roughly 13 minutes left in the fourth quarter, Petrino--who had pushed back the Deacs' defense with a consistent aerial approach--ordered up a change-of-pace run to the right boundary, outside the numbers. Kolby Smith sprinted for 11 yards and a first down. One play later, Anthony Allen would give the Cards a lead they would never relinquish.

But the Ville--appropriately unsatisfied with a tenuous 17-13 edge--then went in for the kill. Yes, Petrino still called a first-down run on a subsequent drive, but he predominantly stuck with the passing game. After Brohm moved the sticks several times, Petrino was then able to go back to the ground, and when fullback Brock Bolen rolled into the end zone on a quick-hitting 18-yard run with 5:26 left, Louisville's victory was secure. Petrino's adjustments--which came late, but not too late--ultimately put his team over the top in a hard-fought battle that was closer than he would have liked.

Lost in the Cards' fourth-quarter surge is the fact that Louisville's defense truly won this game. Sure, the Cards could have done a better job of stopping Wake quarterback Riley Skinner in 3rd and 10 situations. After all, the Deacons converted several third and longs with easy passes against a sluggish U of L secondary. But while the white shirts on defense didn't get off the field as quickly as the could have--which had to make Petrino squirm uncomfortably as the night wore on--they ultimately limited Wake on the scoreboard by getting timely stops and causing fumbles deep in their own territory. A band of Cardinal defenders stood up and stripped Wake running back Richard Belton at the Louisville 13 with four minutes left in the third quarter. Without that play--the second biggest of the night, behind Kolby Smith's crucial run--the Cards might not have regained their mojo in time. While Brian Brohm got the MVP award, the true heroes for Louisville played defense, especially a gallant linebacking corps that provided superb run support all night long.

Louisville didn't play its best game, but no one on the Big East and (now) Orange Bowl champions has to apologize to anyone. The Cardinals received a vigorous challenge from the ACC titleists and responded in crunch time to earn a well-deserved victory. In its first BCS bowl game, the best team in the Big East upheld the honor of the conference while affirming the Louisville program as a consistent college football powerhouse.

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