On the Ball

There was a joke that was going around last spring, after University of North Carolina Basketball Coach Matt Doherty led the team through a horrendous season. The joke went like this, "Did you know that Matt Doherty had done something that no previous UNC basketball coach had ever accomplished; he turned UNC into a football school." Well, it looks like the two major schools in Kentucky are on their way to becoming football schools as well, except in this case, they did not do it by default, but rather they earned it on the field.

The University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky almost pulled off the extremely rare, double-Florida sweep. On Thursday night, in the middle of a torrential downpour, the Cardinals edged a 26-20 victory of #4-ranked Florida State in overtime. This brings Head Coach John L. Smith's record to 2-0 in overtime games played during a monsoon, counting their victory over UK in 2000. On Saturday afternoon, the Wildcats, despite the best effort of their special teams, fell 41-34 to the #6-ranked University of Florida. What does this tell us? First thing, the football world is getting smaller, and no longer should the big dogs of the college football world think they can run over everyone like they are used to doing. This year, there is only one great team in America, and that is the University of Miami. Second, you don't have to own a roster of All-Americans to have talented players. Cardinals quarterback Dave Ragone was easily the most talented and toughest player on the field Thursday night. Playing behind an offensive line that allowed him to be demolished earlier in the season, he threw and ran like the Heisman Trophy candidate he was supposed to be. The Florida Gators may have had the better quarterback in Rex Grossman, and a better receiver in Taylor Jacobs, but they did not have an answer for UK's special teams. That is what a good team does; they find their opening and they blast through it. Derek Abney ran a punt and a kickoff back for touchdowns. UK blocked punts, forced fumbles, and blocked extra points, all in an effort to overcome a down day for the offense. In the end, UK deserved to win that game as much as Florida did.

In the past, a close loss like this would be enough for UK. Their football history is littered with coulda, woulda, shouldas. This is what most of us have to hang our hats on; the games where we had a chance. This year seems different though, because a lot of people, and not just those wearing blue-colored glasses, thought UK could have won this game. And after the game, that is what Head Coach Guy Morris thought as well.

"We didn't come out here to get beat by 1 or 7, 19 or whatever the spread was. We came out to win."

Star running back, and dark horse Heisman hopeful Artose Pinner echoed many of the same sentiments, "There wasn't a guy in (the locker room) who said we just got beat by 7 points. Nobody said that. We should have won."

U of L thought their season was pretty much over after early-season losses to UK and Colorado State. The dreams of crashing the Bowl Championship Series were gone, they fell out of the Top 25, and the Heisman talk with Ragone was a distant memory. At the beginning of the season, the home game against FSU was the only game that mattered to many Cardinal fans, and perhaps many of the Cardinals themselves. This lack of focus on the other two quality opponents they were to face, could have played a factor in their 2-2 record. The two things on the line for the Cardinals were pride and respect. Pride, in that they wanted to show they were better than their record reflected, and respect, in that they wanted the world to see they were no paper tiger in Conference USA, but a solid football team. That is what they accomplished by outplaying and outcoaching Bobby Bowden and the Seminoles. They expected to win, which is why they ordered an extra set of goal posts weeks before the game. Somebody knew those babies were coming down.

So, where do we go from here? I do not think anyone in these parts is quite used to being from a "football" school. The first thing that needs to remain is the raised expectations. No longer is it OK to almost win games or play teams close. UK and U of L should be getting to the point that upsets are not that rare. Of course, after awhile I guess they won't be upsets anymore. UK fans are right to cheer on their team, while at the same time question some of the conservative play calling that affected the Cats last weekend. When you have the #6 team in the country on the ropes, at their home field, you have to try something besides dump-off passes and runs off tackle. U of L fans need to rise up and demand they leave Conference USA for a real athletic conference. They know there is only so far you can go in a minor conference, and like a star baseball player stuck in AAA, the time is now for a call to the big show. The SEC is full right now, but a move to the ACC or the Big East would do wonders for all of their programs. The football team may pick up a few more losses, but they will grow by leaps and bounds in national exposure and respect. They will also be going to much, much better bowls than the backwater hoe downs Conference USA sends their teams to.

Who would have thought when the game was over on September 1st, how good both these teams really were? U OF L was then seen as an overrated pretender to the throne, while UK's win was looked at as a gritty upset of a rival. With victories in their next two games, both teams could be in the Top 25. Right now, the Cats are #29 and the Cards #30. How great would that be? Is Kentucky a football or a basketball state? Who says we can't be both?