Tuesday, September 03, 2002

Louisville tries to regroup after opening loss

AP Sports Writer

        LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Their dreams of crashing the Bowl Championship Series virtually wiped out by a season-opening 22-17 loss to Kentucky, the Louisville Cardinals returned to their practice facility Monday for a heart-to-heart meeting with Coach John L. Smith.

        “They're hurting. This was a big game for them,” Smith said, his voice still hoarse from yelling throughout Sunday night's humbling defeat. “We've got to put this behind us and move on. You've got to grow from it and get better.”

        The loss dropped Louisville (0-1) out of this week's Associated Press Top 25 from No. 17 last week.

        Louisville went 11-2 last season and the program received unprecedented national exposure during the offseason. Smith sensed about two weeks ago that the Cardinals were letting the attention go to their heads.

        He started noticing cracks in the team's work ethic and felt the players, and even coaches, had lost sight of the smaller goals that fueled them during their rise to the national spotlight — like winning records and Conference USA championships.

        Smith said he has just the remedy for refocusing his team this week as it prepares for Saturday's game at Duke (1-0).

        “It's called a cowboy boot in your tail. And if it takes two, or three or four of them, you put two or three or four of them there,” said Smith, highlighting his favorite form of footwear. “Anybody who'd like to give me a couple of swift kicks, I'm sure I deserve it, too.”

        A total of 14 NFL scouts turned out for Sunday's game, but the two-time Conference USA champions looked nothing like a team hungry for national respect.

        The Wildcats hammered the Cardinals' offensive line — with four new starters — and held Louisville to 55 yards rushing. They battered quarterback Dave Ragone, touted as a Heisman Trophy candidate, until he limped off the field and sank to his knees in exhaustion with the outcome decided in the fourth quarter.

        Smith said his senior quarterback's stock in the scouts' eyes may have actually risen, simply because he made it to the end of the game.

        “A lot of guys can't play with pain. He can,” Smith said. “That guy bled for this football team. Yeah, we didn't look very good as a team and we lost.

        “But that's not a loser. He's a tough nut.”

        The rest of the Cardinals' offense was another story. Smith rotated eight linemen throughout the game trying to protect Ragone, but he never found a combination that worked. He also switched off between running backs T.J. Patterson and Lionel Gates, but the duo finished with eight yards on 11 carries.

        “We have to decide who are going to be the guys we're going to put time and effort into, and not have as much bouncing around,” Smith said. “You look at film and you decide who's better and who isn't. Then you go to the field and try to build from there.”

        Smith did find a few bright spots after reviewing a tape of the game.

        Although Louisville's heralded defense broke down on an early 64-yard screen pass for a touchdown and failed to generate a turnover, Smith said the unit played well.

        And Broderick Clark, a speedy redshirt freshman, electrified the crowd of 42,660 with a 100-yard kickoff return at the start of the second half.

        “As poorly as we did, we still had an opportunity to win the game,” Smith said. “But we have a long way to go. We've got to bounce back.”


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