LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Through the first three quarters of their ACC home opener against Virginia, the pendulum of momentum had swung completely in favor of Louisville.
While they did trail 13-10 heading into halftime, the Cardinals seized that momentum with a vice grip when both teams took the field for the third quarter, proceeding to fire off 20 unanswered points.
Offensively, they scored on all four of their drives - two touchdowns and two field goals - during the quarter. Defensively, two of Virginia's first three drives of the half ended in interceptions. Entering the fourth, Louisville had a commanding 30-13 lead, and seemed to be well on their way to a victory.
In the fourth quarter, that pendulum of momentum swung in the complete opposite direction. Virginia responded with a 21-3 run of their own, taking a 34-33 lead in the final minute. Louisville gave themselves an opportunity late, but James Turner's 49-yard field goal attempt sailed wide left as time expired.
"I thought we were in pretty good shape sometimes, and they’d complete another pass and get down the field. They have a really good passing attack," head coach Scott Satterfield said. "Ultimately, they just made more plays in the last couple of drives.”
Like in weeks prior, after establishing a large lead, Satterfield took his foot off the gas and transitioned to a slightly more conservative game plan. Louisville ran the ball 21 times in the second half - compared to attempting 10 passes - but they still were able to average 9.0 yards per attempt thanks to a career day from Hassan Hall.
But, there were some situations that raised questions. After a nine-yard keeper from Malik Cunningham on first down with 7:49 left, Louisville then opted to run two predictable runs up the middle that went nowhere, and were forced to punt.
Later in the quarter, while up 30-27 with 2:22 left, Louisville faced 4th & 5 on the Virginia 27, and opted for the field goal. Normally, it's an easy decision to take the points and force your opponent to have to score a touchdown. But, considering the Virginia offense had just scored two straight touchdowns, an argument can be made to be aggressive and go for it.
You can nitpick at the minutiae of the overall offensive game plan, but there is no nitpicking what the defense did down the stretch. In the final quarter, UVA quarterback Brennan Armstrong threw for 183 of his 487 passing yards - well over one-third of his total.
The reason? Like the offense, the defense also opted to run a conservative approach - except this time it bit Louisville harder than it did on offense. On the majority of Armstrong's drop backs in the fourth, the Cardinals only sported three down linemen to go after him.
"With the three-man rush, the thought is you have eight guys to cover their four or five guys, and now hopefully you're covering up those zones," Satterfield said.
This game plan should work in theory, but the execution of it was severely lacking. Time after time, Armstrong found the holes in the zone - some of them wide open - and Louisville refused to adjust their pseudo-prevent defense.
Part of this was because of the mismatches that favored Virginia's size in the times Louisville did go man-to-man. More often than not, the Hoos' receivers were able to complete contested catches with a defensive back right on their hip.
As if the backfiring 'play-not-to-lose' approach from both side of the ball was bad enough, the players played a role in the downfall, as well. Once again, after racing out to a seemingly insurmountable lead, wide receiver Justin Marshall said complacency started to set in.
"(It) was the tipping point," he said. "College football is not over until the clock hits zero. Every play counts, every down counts. We should have executed a lot better. We could have put ourselves in better position."
In a vacuum, a collapse like this magnitude is already bad enough. Per ESPN's win predictor, Louisville's chances at victory peaked as high as 95.6 percent in the final minute.
But what makes that fourth quarter performance so frustrating for the players, coaches and fan alike, is that this is now the third straight week where Louisville has had some sort of drought due to conservative play calling and player complacency.
It started against Florida State, continued into Wake Forest, and now has seemingly manifested itself against Virginia. For a team searching to find an identity, if they're not careful, late game collapses could become just that.
Conceivably, Louisville is a handful of plays away from being 5-1 on the season. Instead, they head into their bye week at 3-3, on a two-game losing streak, and faced with a plethora of questions that need answering.
(Photo of Chandler Jones: Jamie Rhodes - USA TODAY Sports)
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