Saturday, October 05, 2002

Ragone's performance returns him to the national spotlight



By CHRIS DUNCAN
AP Sports Writer

[img]
Louisville quarterback Dave Ragone against Florida State last week.
(AP photo)
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        LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The coaches had departed the Louisville locker room, leaving quarterback Dave Ragone and the 25 players on his offense alone with their thoughts.

        It was halftime of last Thursday's game with No. 4 Florida State, and the Cardinals trailed 13-6.

        Ragone had given plenty of pep talks before, but this time he decided only one word was needed.

        “I yelled out, 'Believe!' That's all you had to say,” he said.

        The Cardinals followed their senior leader onto the rain-soaked field and earned perhaps the greatest win in the program's history, a 26-20 overtime triumph.

        “We all just believed we were going to win,” said offensive tackle Jerry Spencer. “Dave is a great leader.”

        After the game, as fans spilled out of the seats at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, Ragone dove to the muddy turf in exultation.

        “You give kids who aren't as physically talented the idea they're still in a game with a team they shouldn't be playing with, that fuels the fire. That's what happened,” Ragone said. “It looked like we were the fourth-ranked team in the country.”

        Ragone finished 15-of-27 for a season-low 182 yards with an interception and rushed for 43 yards. But his performance was filled with gritty runs, fist pumps and fiery emotion.

        The next day, Ragone was a guest on several national sports radio talk shows. On Saturday, he appeared on ESPN's “College Gameday.”

        As he usually does, Ragone deflected praise toward his teammates, particularly his offensive line, which was heavily criticized early in the season.

        Ragone was sacked 10 times in Louisville's first four games, and admitted he was becoming tentative when he dropped back.

        He was sacked six times against the Seminoles, but only twice after halftime. The line's play in the second half rebuilt Ragone's confidence in the unit and himself.

        “I took my lumps,” he said. “I didn't envision the first month being like that, but I think I have grown up. The two losses we had were bitter, but we've bounced back and grown together.

        “Now, it seems like everything's slowed down for them up front. They're communicating a lot better, they're finishing their blocks,” Ragone said. “That gives me time to step into the pocket. If I'm able to step into the pocket, I'll be able to complete most of my throws.”

        Ragone also has renewed confidence in his underclassmen-rich receiving corps. He completed over 60 percent of his passes in 2001, but his percentage was only 51 percent heading into Thursday's game.

        Ragone started 2-for-8 against the Seminoles, then connected on 13-of-19 passes in the second half. Sophomore Joshua Tinch caught four passes for 93 yards, including a 30-yard TD reception, and eight different Cardinals had catches.

        “They all stepped up,” Ragone said. “This is how the offense is supposed to work. There isn't a go-to guy. It's an efficient way to get the ball down the field.

        “Measure us at the end of the year and see how far we've come,” he said. “Each week, we're growing together and getting better and believing in one another. By the end of the season, it's going to be something special.”

        The Cardinals play at Memphis (2-3, 1-2 Conference USA) on Tuesday in another nationally televised game. But a few days after the landmark victory over Florida State, Ragone still wasn't ready to look ahead.

        He usually doesn't watch tapes of his games from start-to-finish, but succumbed Monday night when he learned the game was playing on ESPN Classic. His close friend and former Louisville tight end Chip Mattingly watched it with him.

        “We were going nuts,” Ragone said. “You see the great Ohio State-Michigan rivalries on ESPN Classic, but who would believe you would see Florida State-Louisville? That's something that goes away in the archives, something to put away for family members.

        “It's huge. It's going to go beyond this year, beyond anyone's playing career, regardless of what happens after their college careers are over.”

        Ragone realizes the win restores Louisville's stature as the pick to win Conference USA. The Cardinals were ranked 17th in the preseason, but dropped out after opening with a 22-17 loss to Kentucky. Now, after stumbling early, they must relearn how to deal with being favorites.

        Ragone thinks they will.

        “A guy came up to me after the game and said, 'You guys play so much better as underdogs,' and it's true,” Ragone said. “We know when conference comes, we're the conference champs. But outside our conference, we're looked upon as a second-tier team. We've got a lot of people talking.”

       



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