No. 20 Louisville preparing for Belk Bowl
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) Louisville players' resolve to overcome challenges is one reason coach Bobby Petrino is excited about the program's fourth consecutive bowl appearance.
The No. 20 Cardinals (9-3) had to replace quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, and that was before a preseason foot injury to star receiver DeVante Parker further complicated matters. Louisville has played three quarterbacks and had to replace seven defensive starters.
And of course, the players have had to adjust to the new coaching staff.
Despite everything, Louisville is heading to the Belk Bowl against No. 13 Georgia (9-3) on Dec. 30 in Charlotte, North Carolina, and can finish its third straight season with double-digit wins - which would be a first for the program.
Louisville twice achieved double-digit wins during Petrino's first coaching stint from 2003-06.
''We want to get to 10 wins,'' Petrino said Tuesday. ''That's something certainly our seniors will be very proud of so they can look back and their careers and see the double-digit winning seasons that they've had.
''It is kind of a milestone that you want to hit every year, the 10 wins. ... or 11, or 12 or 13.''
The Cardinals' quest for a program first in Petrino's return could involve the return of freshman QB Reggie Bonnafon, who succeeded sophomore starter Will Gardner after two injuries including a season-ending torn left anterior cruciate ligament last month.
Bonnafon was knocked out of the regular season finale against Kentucky with a bruised knee, allowing third-stringer Kyle Bolin to enter and rally the Cardinals to a 44-40 victory by passing for 381 yards and three touchdowns. Petrino said he is encouraged by Bonnafon's range of motion but wants to see how pain subsides in the knee when bowl preparations resume this week.
Asked about the possibility of using both quarterbacks against Georgia, the coach said, ''We haven't even thought about that yet.''
That Petrino has choices at quarterback and other skill positions speaks to the Cardinals' ability to adapt quickly and improve. That was certainly the case for Parker, who returned from a seven-game absence to catch 35 passes for team highs of 735 yards and five touchdowns.
The same thing could be said for Louisville's defense, which enters the game ranked sixth (293.3 yards allowed per game) despite the switch to a 3-4 alignment. The Cardinals have a nation-leading 25 interceptions, including a NCAA record-tying 14 by safety Gerod Holliman; the sophomore's opportunistic play earned him the Jim Thorpe Award and a first-team selection Tuesday to the AP All-American squad.
The Cardinals will need to maintain their determination on both sides of the ball against the Bulldogs, who rank eighth in scoring (41.7 points) and are fourth in turnover margin at +1.25 per contest. But Louisville brings plenty of strengths, with perseverance being the most obvious in what could end up as another banner season.
''I felt like we've been almost 3, 3 1/2 different personalities throughout the year on offense,'' Petrino said, ''and our coaches have done a great job being positive, working on improvement and trusting the process. Sometimes, that's hard to do when you're not having as much success as you normally have. I was proud that we stayed with it and got better and better as the year went on.''