LOUISVILLE — As Butch Cassidy wondered as he and Sundance were being chased relentlessly by a determined group of lawmen: Who ARE those guys?
The same puzzlement could have applied to fans of the Louisville football team during its opening 35-17 loss to No. 9 Notre Dame Monday night in front of a record Cardinal Stadium crowd of 58,187, about 3,000 shy of a sellout.
The Cardinals were both the same and different. Same players, for the most part, who careened apathetically and incompetently through a 2-10 season a year ago. But, aside from their physical likeness, a totally different group in every other way.
The last time we saw these guys they were being humiliated by Kentucky 56-10 last November in a mismatch that thankfully put the cap on the worst season in U of L history.
No one knew what to expect this year as coach Scott Satterfield kicked off his rebuilding project with different offensive and defensive schemes, but essentially the same personnel.
Short of calling Monday's defeat a "moral victory," let's term it a rousing success, giving rise to hopes that U of L can exceed expectations of three or four wins, at most, and another last-place finish in the ACC's Atlantic Division.
The Cards played with effort. They played with passion and enthusiasm. They looked well-coached. They weren't intimidated. They took the fight to the Irish from the opening kickoff.
That they failed in their ultimate goal of upsetting a Notre Dame team that was a 19-point favorite and is (was?) considered a national title threat is almost beside the point.
They earned respect, looking like a team that is already ahead of schedule, one that will go into Tallahassee in three weeks for its ACC opener against Florida State with confidence and a legitimate shot at victory.
Blowouts by mediocre teams, maybe even very good teams, are a thing of the past. So are close calls against bad teams (see Indiana State, Western Kentucky, circa 2018).
"The fight, the energy they had, was awesome to me," Satterfield said. "If the kids continue to fight like that, we're going to get better every week."
An offensive line that was one of the Cards' many weaknesses last year enabled them to run the ball with grit and toughness against a Notre Dame defensive line that was hyped as one of the best in the nation.
Led by redshirt freshman Javian Hawkins' 122 yards on 19 carries, Louisville racked up 249 rushing yards. Last year it reached that total once, against NC State, while averaging just 141.5 yards per game on the ground.
"That's winning football right there," Satterfield said. "That is what we hoped for. We wanted to establish the run. I'm fired up for the guys up front; they held their own."
Hawkins averaged 6.4 yards per carry and Hassan Hall added 69 yards on 16 tries for a 6.3 average. Hawkins became the first freshman running back to rush for 100 yards in a game since L.J. Scott in a 66-21 win over Murray State on Sept. 6, 2014 and the first vs. an FBS foe since Darius Ashley in a 17-9 loss to West Virginia on Nov. 7, 2009.
Pass showed an ability to be a running threat, gaining 67 yards on 16 carries, but his passing needs more work. He completed just 12-of-27 for 134 yards.
The Cards' defense wasn't great, but it was much improved, especially from an effort standpoint. During a 7½-minute stretch in the second quarter, they forced Notre Dame into three consecutive three-and-outs, the total in their last FOUR games of 2018. They also stuffed the Irish on third-and-two and two third-and-ones.
"I think we played pretty well," linebacker C.J. Avery said. "I just think we beat ourselves with mistakes of our own. But overall I think we played well in the attitude and the effort part that we have been preaching since day one, and I think it will all come together."
After Notre Dame took the opening kickoff 75 yards in just six plays, Louisville and quarterback Jawon Pass responded by stunning their visitors with back-to-back touchdowns as Pass scored on runs of eight and 17 yards.
With 29 seconds left in the first quarter, the massive scoreboard contained a jarring number: U of L 14, Notre Dame 7.
But, as Avery noted, mistakes proved costly. The Cards fumbled five times, losing three, including back-to-back drops by Pass late in the second period inside the U of L 30-yard line with the score tied at 14-14. The second fumble, on the 24, led to an Irish TD and unleashed a string of 21 unanswered points.
"I'm proud of our guys," Satterfield said. "Extremely proud of them and the way they fought. They want to win. They yearned for that when I got here so we can come in here and sing and celebrate and high-five with each other. We'll get better and then we'll win these kind of games. We're going to take a lot of things positive out of this, even though we did lose."
The Cards made progress on all fronts Monday night. They'll take the next step against Eastern Kentucky (1-0) Saturday at 7 p.m. in Cardinal Stadium.