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Louisville finds positives after tough loss

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

Louisville has been through a lot of painful losses in the past two-plus seasons, but Saturday's 31-27 defeat at Kentucky might have been one of the most wrenching. The Cardinals played with passion throughout and twice led in the fourth quarter on the road against their heavily-favored arch rivals.

Steve Kragthorpe was as emotional as he'd ever been at Louisville in the post-game news conference, and he said the scene in the locker room was a big reason why.

"There were so many different emotions in there," he said. "It was sick, it was upset ... it was sad. In about 10 minutes it was an absolute roller coaster. Guys were shedding tears, hugging each other, encouraging each other, guys were breaking down. It was hard."

Despite all that heartache, however, the Cardinals might emerge from that loss as a better team.

They saw how close they could come to winning and may have forged tighter bonds. Quarterback Justin Burke knew something was happening when running back Bilal Powell fought and churned his way toward a first down near the sidelines, and all the defensive players came running over yelling encouragement.

"The way we played and came together as a team, I've never had that much fun in football," he said. "The biggest thing out of that game is we came out of it as a complete unit, a complete team. We have a lot to build on."

Louisville will need to stay together this week for another, probably even tougher road challenge. The Cardinals (1-1) head to Utah to take on a team that's looking to get back on track after its 16-game winning streak was snapped last week at Oregon. You could say this is the latest chapter of the Mountain West-Big East debate, except it's the team that won the Mountain West and the Sugar Bowl last year versus a team that finished last in the Big East.

But Louisville didn't play like an eighth-place team on Saturday and found many things to like.

There was the performance by Burke, who threw for 245 yards and two touchdowns -- including a 66-yard strike to Trent Guy -- in his second college start. Scott Long is back to making big plays at receiver, as he had five catches for 89 yards, and Cameron Graham has developed into a reliable tight end. The Cardinals converted 9-of-17 third downs after struggling in that area in the opener against Indiana State, and they cut down significantly on their penalties.

Some other areas still need work, especially red-zone performance. Louisville scored only four times in six trips deep into Kentucky territory and turned three third-quarter Wildcats turnovers into just 10 points instead of putting the game away.

Burke said he lost focus a couple of times near the goal line and didn't call the right motions and shifts. He said he expects the team to spend a lot of time practicing that this week.

Kragthorpe said Sunday's practice after the loss was one of the best the team has had. He saw players respond enthusiastically after the tough setback. Now it's time to see what they can do going forward.