Tuesday, September 17, 2002

Smith sweating out Louisville's start

AP Sports Writer

        LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Perspiration glistened on the forehead of Louisville coach John L. Smith as he sat down for his weekly news conference Monday.

        He had just finished his daily morning run, but he might've also been sweating over the start of his team's season.

        The Cardinals are 1-2, their worst start since 1998, Smith's first year. They trailed Colorado State 36-14 in the fourth quarter Saturday, before rallying and finally losing 36-33. Their other loss came at home, to archrival Kentucky, in the season opener.

        Smith said blame for the dismal start shouldn't focus on individuals and shouldn't even stop with the players. The Cardinals have four new position coaches this season, and Smith admits they've struggled to come up with solutions to Louisville's problems.

        “We have to guide our guys and give our guys some goals and take them by the hand,” Smith said. “You lay awake and try to come up with all the answers. It's very disheartening to see us go down in some areas rather than improve. We've got to find a way.”

        Despite the return of quarterback Dave Ragone, Smith expected the Cardinals' offense to have trouble early in the season, and it has. Ragone has been sacked 10 times and the Cardinals have committed nine turnovers.

        But Louisville's defense, expected to be one of the nation's best with 10 starters back from last season, was manhandled for much of Saturday's game. Colorado State's 469 total yards were the most amassed against Louisville since Illinois piled up 504 yards last September.

        The Cardinals did come up with their first four turnovers of the season against Colorado State, but also allowed 205 yards rushing, the highest total for an opponent since Memphis had 212 last season.

        “I'm not surprised at the way (Colorado State) challenged us; I'm surprised at how we answered that challenge or did not answer the challenge,” Smith said. “Defensively, as an entire group, we've got to get better. We already know we have to get better offensively.”

        The Rams also got a punt return for a touchdown and Louisville defensive back Chris Johnson ran into a Ram before he had a chance to field another punt, costing the Cardinals 15 yards.

        Louisville gave up 113 combined yards on kickoffs, and punts were penalized eight times for 79 yards.

        “Those are knucklehead penalties. It comes back to the most mentally tough are going to win,” Smith said. “Those are mental mistakes, but how can you go down the field and hit a guy before he even catches the football?

        “We had really good effort in some areas and not even poor effort in other areas. That's a compliment saying it was poor,” Smith said. “It's kind of disheartening that we didn't play better and that we didn't make improvement, because the things we strive for every day is trying to improve every week. We didn't do that.”

        The Cardinals scored 19 points in a stunning 1:41 span to make Saturday's game close. Smith said during that stretch he finally saw flashes of the team he envisioned before the season began.

        “You have to build on that. We hung in there, we fought back and I really thought there, late in the fourth quarter, you saw a spark. All of a sudden, we were all starting to believe we could do it,” Smith said. “Where was that spark earlier? That's what we're trying to look at ourselves as coaches and find out.”

        With the preseason hype around them now gone, the Cardinals open Conference USA play at Army (0-2) on Saturday. It's Louisville's last tuneup before a nationally televised matchup with No. 5 Florida State on Sept. 26.

        “(At the beginning of the season), everybody in the back of their minds was saying, 'Oh, undefeated, Florida State.' We're not talking about those things anymore,” Smith said. “We're talking about sending the seniors out as winners, winning the conference championship, going to a bowl game. We still have our goals in front of us.”


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