LOUISVILLE — I wouldn’t pretend that I know Bobby Petrino enough to judge whether he’s a changed man, as he’s so often claimed, since the Louisville officials hired him to coach their football team this past winter following some rocky years since last coaching here from 2003-06.
All I can tell you is the Bobby Petrino I saw and heard after Monday’s season-opening 31-13 win over the Miami Hurricanes was excited, satisfied and humbled by what he saw as the Cardinals opened their Atlantic Coast Conference era in convincing fashion at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.
A raucous crowd of 55,428 roared pretty much from start to finish, cheering for Petrino, for the Cardinals’ dominant defense (Miami had just 244 yards of offense), senior running back Dominique Brown (33 carries for 143 yards) and sophomore quarterback Will Gardner (20 of 28 for 206 yards and two touchdowns).
In the closing seconds of a game that Louisville dominated in the second half, fans shouted Petrino’s name.
Petrino was asked afterward what was the biggest difference here since he last coached the Cardinals eight long years ago.
“I think the biggest difference was the (pre-game) Card March, and just the excitement,” said Petrino, whose coaching stops since ‘06 include the Atlanta Falcons, Arkansas and Western Kentucky. “And obviously the stadium is bigger and fuller.
“It was so exciting. I was probably more nervous for this game than any game I’ve ever coached. I haven’t slept a lot lately, but it was so exciting when we got to the stadium and then to go out there and watch our players play the way they did.’’
Petrino also looked big picture at the considerable magnitude of this win over a good Miami team.
“It was just a big, national televised game with a lot of recruits watching — a lot of recruits we’re both recruiting — a conference game...so it’s a great opener,” Petrino said. “It’s one we like playing because it means a lot all winter and summer long in how you prepare.
“It was awesome,” he added. “To see our players come out here and compete and win against a really good football team. I think they came to play. And it wasn’t easy for us to play the same team they played in the (Russell Athletic) bowl game (a 36-9 U of L win). Maybe that’s what made me so nervous. But our players did a great job. To win our opener in the ACC was a great way to get started.”
A 14-play, 67-yard drive that lasted seven minutes and 47 seconds in the latter stages of the fourth quarter reflected how thoroughly Petrino’s team deflated the Hurricanes both mentally and physically.
Brown did much of the damage on that drive, consistently breaking arm tackles, while Gardner also enjoyed some of his best moments at quarterback in that stretch. Gardner capped the drive with a 10-yard toss for the score to senior tight end Gerald Christian that sealed the win with 1:43 to go.
“We always talk to our offensive linemen about running to win, that’s what we call it, and it was great to do that there,” Petrino said of his line’s domination on that march. “And Will also executed some play action passes there. He was 3-for-3 on those, while we were running the ball, so it was a great group effort.”
The Cardinals were far from a well-oiled machine early, making enough mistakes in the first half to allow the Hurricanes to hang around. Louisville led 14-10 at halftime, thanks to a 2-yard TD pass from Gardner to freshman tight end Charles Standberry and an electrifying 97-yard kickoff return by junior speedster Crovin Lamb.
But Petrino was not a happy camper at the break.
“They were playing hard, but we were hurting ourselves in the first half,” Petrino said. “We kept telling them we have to quit hurting ourselves. We made some bad mistakes, like running the kickoff out the first of the game, fielding a punt inside our 10-yard-line ... we had a couple stupid penalties.
“So at halftime it was all about let’s keep our poise and do what we’re coached to do and keep playing hard. One of the things I truly believe in is before you can beat the team you’re playing, you have got to not beat yourself. And we quit doing that, particularly in the fourth quarter.”
After Miami kicker Matt Goudis hit a 24-yard field goal to close the Louisville lead to 13-14 early in the third quarter, Brown scored on a 15-yard touchdown late in that period to make it 21-13, and then junior John Wallace hit a 28-yard field goal for a 24-13 margin early in the fourth against the tiring ‘Canes.
Defensively, the Cardinals were solid throughout. They held the Hurricanes to just three points after Miami had the ball deep in U of L territory on two consecutive possessions in the second quarter.
The Cardinals largely held standout Miami running back Duke Johnson in check, limiting him to 90 yards on 20 carries.
Miami started true freshman Brad Kaaya at quarterback, and Louisville pressured him into a shaky, 17 of 29 showing, with two interceptions.
Louisville’s QB, Gardner, meanwhile, seemed to grow up over the span of four quarters in his first college start.
“You talk about poise and competitive spirit,” Petrino said of Gardner. “With the way he came out and played after a couple of mistakes ... I’m very proud of him.”
Louisville gets a breather this Saturday, hosting Murray State at 7 (ESPN3), before going on the road for a Sept. 13 ACC contest at Virginia (12:30 p.m., ACC Network).