Louisville's unbeaten season is no more

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Louisville coach Charlie Strong came out of the visiting locker room with his head down and opened with a brutally honest assessment of what happened Saturday afternoon.

“I am very embarrassed today for our program,” Strong said.

No. 9 Louisville came into its game against Syracuse with almost every college football observer in the nation wondering whether the Cardinals were for real. They got no love in the polls, no love from the computers, and no love in the BCS standings as one of six unbeaten teams headed into the weekend.

The only way to shut up the doubters? To put together a complete effort in front of a national television audience Saturday afternoon and inch ever so slightly toward a perfect season.

Instead, Louisville put together its most incomplete effort of the season in a 45-26 loss, in what amounted to a completely inexplicable performance from the conference flag-bearer.

Now the Big East is left with zero unbeaten teams, and no more relevance in the national conversation. It was lost on nobody that the team that delivered the beatdown is headed out of the league and into the waiting arms of the ACC.

On the bright side, it's hard to imagine the Big East taking a huge hit to its image, given how little pundits think of this league. Going into this game, virtually everybody put Louisville on upset alert, so that should tell you that almost everyone thought Saturday's end result was inevitable.

The proof was there: Louisville hung on by a thread in every game this year, trailing at various points of nearly every contest. But this team had a resilience nobody else in the league showed. Louisville found a way to get to 9-0 -- its best start in school history.

The hot start was good for the Big East, despite nobody embracing this team. And yes, this season seemed to be shaping up differently for the much-maligned conference.

Remember, the story at the midseason point was three unbeaten teams carrying the conversation. Now, much has reverted to form around these parts. There is nobody strong enough to avoid an upset at the hands of (1) a losing team or (2) a team from the MAC.

There are easy explanations for what happened against the Orange, and it had nothing to do with luck running out. Louisville was outcoached and outplayed. Simple.

The Cardinals had their worst defensive performance under Strong. The last time the Cardinals gave up this many points, Steve Kragthorpe was the coach and Louisville lost to Rutgers 63-14 to close out the 2008 season.

You name it, and, well, it went wrong. Louisville could not contain Syracuse receiver Alec Lemon, who ended up with 176 yards receiving and two touchdowns. Louisville could not stop the run, giving up 278 yards on the ground. Louisville got absolutely no pressure up front. Oh, and did we mention the missed tackles?

“The flaws really showed up today,” Strong said. “But you come on the road and you are going to get flaws. You have to be prepared. No. 1, you have to pack your defense. We didn’t pack our defense today. You have to pack your special teams. We didn’t pack our special teams. It’s discipline. We weren’t a very disciplined football team today. What happens -- you come into an environment like this and lose a game.”

The offense wasn't exactly rockin’ and rollin’ out there, either. The run game was nonexistent once the Cardinals lost leading rusher Senorise Perry to a leg injury on the opening drive. After trailing 31-10 in the second quarter, Louisville had to abandon its game plan and just fling it on every down. But even then, Teddy Bridgewater had difficulty finding his most reliable targets, because Syracuse just took them all away.

“We felt like we knew what they were going to do on each and every down,” Syracuse safety Shamarko Thomas said. “We knew if we stayed attached to the receivers and Teddy Bridgewater didn’t have anybody to throw to, he’d have to throw it out of bounds.”

None of this is to take away from what Syracuse did on senior day. The Orange had the perfect game plan, and worked hard to control every aspect. They did just that, winning everywhere: offense, defense, special teams, the turnover battle, time of possession, third-down conversions, scoreboard.

Syracuse now stands one win away from becoming bowl-eligible. All that “hot seat” talk about Doug Marrone should be firmly put to rest. The man has now led his team to upset wins against highly ranked unbeaten squads two years in a row.

For Louisville, the disappointment cannot last long. The anger in the postgame locker room must turn to focus and motivation. Despite the loss, Louisville can still clinch a Big East title and a BCS appearance. Perhaps it was hard to really see that glimmer of hope after its unbeaten season was dashed.

But two more wins get the Cardinals to the same place they would be had they won out.

“When you’re winning every game and you’re undefeated, each game gets bigger and bigger regardless of who you’re playing, because you’re getting close to that undefeated season,” center Mario Benavides said. “Being undefeated was never our main goal. Our main goal is to win the Big East, and we can still do that.”