“It was a tale of two halves, where in the first half we were unstoppable on offense, taking the ball every drive and scoring," said U of L head coach Charlie Strong immediately after the game. "Defensively we were able to make plays allowing them only one score."
In the second half, not so much.
Any analysis written after the first 30 minutes of play would have been glowing for Louisville. Both offensively and defensively, the Cardinals had their way with visiting North Carolina. Memories of Louisville's dominating wins against North Carolina in 2004 (34-0) and 2005 (69-14) began dancing throughout the minds of Cardinal fans everywhere. Then came the second half and what moments earlier looked near flawless, became what seemed an every-down struggle.
Louisville took a commanding 36-7 halftime lead, only to hang on for a concerning 39-34 win.
Complete domination was the story of the first half. Louisville had six possessions and scored each time, including a perfect 5-of-5 in the red zone. Behind a very balanced attack, the Cardinals compiled 19 first downs and 360 yards of total offense. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater continued to prove that he's one of the nation's best, throwing for 218-yards and completing 84% of his passes.
“The offensive line was winning up front," said Bridgewater. "The running backs were running with their pads low. And the wide receivers were making big plays in the passing game. So, it was all just perfect execution.”
The ground attack of Jeremy Wright and Senorise Perry ran for 142-yards in the first half, with an 8.5 yards per carry average.
"It makes it easier when guys you are counting on do their job," said Wright. "We as running backs have to make sure we go out and do our job right, so it'll make it easier on them."
Charles Gaines once again displayed his combination of speed and elusiveness. Midway through the first quarter, Gaines blew by the Tarheel secondary to get wide open in the end zone for a 32-yard touchdown pass from Bridgewater to give U of L it's second score of the afternoon.
The second half highlight was a 13 play, 49-yard drive that resulted in a John Wallace 43-yard field goal, which gave the Cardinals a seemingly unsurmountable 39-14 advantage with just under 14 minutes remaining in the game. That drive, which chewed up an impressive 6:39 off the game clock, accounted for half of the offensive's second half output.
With that lone exception, the second half was a near perfect storm of conservative play-calling and a lack of focus.
“It’s not that they lost intensity, it’s all about your focus and going out there and finishing the game," said Strong. "You open up the third quarter and you drive the ball and then get stopped on fourth and one and then North Carolina gets a big play for a big touchdown. It’s all about us maintaining and making sure that we can stay focus with our players. The coaching staff has to keep coaching also.”
Prior to the game, the play of the Cardinal defense was a concern for some. Those concerns quickly disappeared as the game began. North Carolina struggled to cross midfield and never managed to have a sustained drive. The Tarheels lone first half score came on a 4 play, 66 yard drive, which was capped off by a 44-yard touchdown reception.
During the first half, Louisville's pressure appeared more effective than it's previous two outings. Junior defensive end Marcus Smith recorded his first career interception, which set up the Cardinals second touchdown. Safety Calvin Pryor forced a fumble, recovered by cornerback Adrian Bushell, which led to a Cardinals scoring drive to start the second quarter. North Carolina's offense was only able to muster 11 yards rushing and converted just 1 of 5 third down attempts.
As well as it played in the first half, it took until 1:44 remaining in the game for the defense to come up with the type of play that was sorely needed throughout the final two quarters.
North Carolina found success with big play opportunities and capitalized. Only one of the Tarheel's scoring drives took more than two minutes off the clock.
“When you are up that big and allow a team to come back and score that many points you have to somehow defensively get a turnover or a sack," said Strong. "You have to make a play on defense. We did not make a play on defense so their team was able to take advantage of that."
Sophomore cornerback Andrew Johnson's pass deflection in the end zone on a North Carolina fourth-down play saved the day for a Louisville team that no one imagined would need saving after the first half.
"Before the series we knew we had to step up," said Johnson. "Big time play makers make big time plays in big time games. I just happened to make a big play.”
A punt blocked that leads to a quick touchdown, a fumbled punt return that leads to a touchdown and a pair of failed two-point conversions. No matter how one spins it, that is a bad day at the office.
Kicker John Wallace's third-quarter field goal from 43-yards stands out, but as a unit, this continues to be an area of concern for the Cardinals.
There are plenty of positives to take from this game. This Louisville team has an offense, that when executing, can move the ball at will. It's extremely balanced and while it is a threat to score on any given play, it's clearly proven that it can grind out long, time-consuming drives. It's strength is in it's attacking. Defensively, there continues to be glimpse of greatness, as well. For the third straight week, the Cardinals have yet to allow an opponent to rush for over 100 yards or give up a rushing touchdown.
However, the near second-half collapse clearly raises questions. Does a team loaded with youth learn from the lack of focus? How much is conservative play-calling to blame for sub-par second half performances? What will be done defensively to prevent big-yardage gains?
The answers to these questions will need to be found with a three-game road trip coming for Louisville.
“Well we played very good in the first half, and we won the game," said Strong. "That was a very good Carolina football team. We are still a young football team and we know that we still need to mature. At the end of the day we still won the football game. We have us a good team and we just need to learn how to finish.”