Cantwell, Stripling keep the Cards a contender

Hunter Cantwell walked on Louisville's football team because no other school thought he could play quarterback in college -- at any level. Running back George Stripling accepted a scholarship from the Cardinals because none of the Division I-A powerhouses in his native Florida thought he was good enough to play on their teams.

Both Cantwell and Stripling figured they would play supporting roles this season, as Heisman Trophy candidates Brian Brohm and Michael Bush -- the "Derby City Duo" -- tried to guide Louisville to the Big East championship and perhaps even a berth in the BCS title game.

But when Bush, the bruising tailback, broke his right leg in the opener against Kentucky, Stripling was thrust into a lead role. And when Brohm left Saturday's 31-7 win over Miami with torn ligaments in his right thumb, Cantwell was forced into the game.

Now, the two players who were once overlooked by most college football teams must try to keep alive No. 8 Louisville's championship hopes, starting with Saturday's game at undefeated Kansas State.

"We're still a national contender," Stripling said. "The win over Miami just raised people's eyebrows a little bit more. It showed Louisville is still a team to be reckoned with, even without Brian Brohm and Michael Bush."

Bush, who ran for 1,143 yards and 23 touchdowns last season, will miss the rest of the season. Brohm, who threw for nearly 2,900 yards and 19 touchdowns in 10 games in 2005, will miss three to six weeks after undergoing surgery on Sunday.

Brohm's thumb will be immobilized for two weeks and then he'll begin rehabilitation. He hopes to return before the Nov. 2 showdown against No. 4 West Virginia at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium in Louisville.

"I think losing Mike and Brian definitely hurts our team, but we've got a great scheme and great coaches," Cantwell said. "This team is very centered around being a team. We've got some great individual players. But in the end, it's about 11 guys playing together for four quarters."

The rest of Louisville's players know what to expect from Cantwell. He started two games last season after Brohm injured his knee late in the season, and led the Cardinals to a 30-20 victory at Connecticut in their last regular season game. Against Virginia Tech in the Gator Bowl, he threw for 216 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions in a 35-24 loss.

Cantwell, a 6-foot-5, 230-pound sophomore, took several vicious hits from the Hokies, including one that broke his nose. But he kept getting back up.

"We already had respect for him," Stripling said. "But when he kept getting hit by Virginia Tech and kept getting up, he earned a lot more respect from the team."

Said Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer of Cantwell: "A very tough kid."

Cantwell threw for more than 2,200 yards and 29 touchdowns as a senior at Paducah (Ky.) Tilghman High in 2003 and is the school's all-time leading passer. But he didn't receive a single scholarship offer and seemed resolved to enroll at Kentucky as a walk-on. But when Wildcats coach Guy Morriss left for Baylor and the school hired Rich Brooks as his replacement, Cantwell said Kentucky's new coaching staff wasn't interested in bringing him aboard.

So Cantwell became a walk-on at Louisville instead, where he figured to play behind a long line of quarterbacks and direct the scout team. Cantwell was redshirted in 2004, but impressed Louisville coach Bobby Petrino with his arm strength and quick delivery. So much so that Petrino gave him a scholarship and now believes his backup quarterback can play in the NFL.

"I think he will," Petrino said. "He can really throw the football. He's very, very accurate and can make all the throws and has a very quick release."

Brohm came out of a play in the third quarter against the Hurricanes shaking his right hand.

Petrino said he didn't initially know how badly Brohm was hurt. Petrino said he signaled in a play, and when Brohm didn't respond, he signaled the play in again. When Brohm finally came to the sideline and told his coach he had dislocated his thumb and couldn't grip the football, Petrino said he hoped trainers would pop the quarterback's thumb back into place and tape it up.

Cantwell said he didn't know he was about to be handed the reins of the Cardinals' high-octane offense, either.

"When Brian came off, he was walking around and didn't look like he was in any pain," Cantwell said. "I thought it was just a stinger or something like that. I thought I would go in and get one or two plays and then go back to the sideline."

"I think winning against Miami was big. It's a big win for our team and the community. But we can't ride that victory for too long. We've got to march forward."
-- Hunter Cantwell

But Cantwell remained in the game. Petrino showed how much confidence he has in Cantwell on the backup quarterback's second play. After the Cardinals sacked Miami quarterback Kyle Wright and recovered a fumble, Cantwell threw a 45-yard pass to Harry Douglas. Kolby Smith scored on a two-yard run on the next play to make it 24-7. In the fourth quarter, Cantwell threw a 39-yard touchdown pass to Stripling.

"We have a lot of confidence in Hunter," Petrino said. "He's a big, strong kid that can throw the football. He was able to take all the snaps with the first-team offense in spring ball [Brohm was still recovering from knee surgery], so the team has a lot of confidence in him. We expect to just keep going and won't change the offense for him."

Louisville's running game hasn't missed a beat, either, with Stripling and Smith sharing the load.

Stripling, a 6-foot, 190-pound sophomore from Jacksonville, Fla., has run 28 times for 201 yards and four touchdowns. Stripling had 90 yards and two touchdowns against Kentucky. He also has caught five passes for 141 yards, including the long touchdown against the Hurricanes.

"I'm a little faster than [Bush]," Stripling said. "I can give opposing players a quick jab and cut back. Michael can do the same thing, too, and he's a great back. But I can do it a little bit faster. He's more of a power back."

Smith, a 218-pound senior from Tallahassee, Fla., has run for 200 yards and scored three touchdowns in three games. He had 86 yards and one touchdown in a 62-0 win over Temple two weeks ago and ran for 48 yards and two scores against the Hurricanes.

"I think winning against Miami was big," Cantwell said. "It's a big win for our team and the community. But we can't ride that victory for too long. We've got to march forward."

And, unexpectedly, Cantwell and Stripling will be leading the way.

On (and off) the Mark

On the Mark
Four SEC teams are ranked in the top 10 of the Associated Press Top 25 poll and each has cemented its place among the national championship contenders by playing outstanding defense.

Georgia blasted UAB 34-0 last week, posting consecutive shutouts for the first time since its national title season in 1980. The No. 9 Bulldogs rank No. 2 in Division I-A in scoring defense, allowing only 4.0 points per game. They're fifth in total defense, yielding 203.67 yards per game, and seventh in rush defense (56.7 yards per game).

"I don't know how good we are," Georgia defensive coordinator Willie Martinez said. "The one thing I like about our guys is that they've been so focused in the first three games. But I don't know how good we are. Time will only tell. It's still early."

No. 2 Auburn, which edged LSU 7-3 on Saturday in a game that had more violent collisions than a demolition derby, is allowing only 248.67 yards and 5.7 points per game. No. 5 Florida, which rallied from a 17-7 deficit to beat Tennessee 21-20 in Knoxville, ranks 13th in total defense (222.67 yards) and 11th in scoring defense (9.0 points). And No. 10 LSU leads the country in total defense (170 yards per game) and hasn't allowed more than seven points in each of its first three games.

"I think speed has a lot to do with it," Martinez said. "Guys have the ability to overcome a mistake and still minimize the play because they're so fast. LSU is really big up front and able to run. Tennessee is that way. We're not that big up front. But guys are making up for it because they can run."

Off the Mark
Boy, can't wait for that season-ending Egg Bowl between Ole Miss and Mississippi State. I was dead wrong about the Bulldogs. I thought Sly Croom's third season as coach would result in more offense and more victories. Mississippi State was shut out in its first two games, before finally scoring against Tulane on Saturday. But State's defense couldn't stop the Green Wave, allowing 433 yards in a 32-29 loss. Tulane had lost eight consecutive games and hadn't beaten an SEC team on the road since 1989.

Ole Miss looked good in its season-opening 28-25 win over Memphis, but the Rebels have looked atrocious playing on the road the last two weeks. They lost 34-7 at Missouri two weeks ago and 31-14 at Kentucky on Saturday. It was the Wildcats' first victory in an SEC opener in 16 years.

Former Tennessee quarterback Brent Schaeffer hasn't helped Ole Miss' offense much, as it ranks 100th in scoring offense (16.33 points per game) and 110th in passing (125.7 yards). The Rebels have turned the ball over eight times and gained only three turnovers.

There won't be much cheering in the Magnolia State this Saturday: Wake Forest will beat the Rebels and UAB will beat the Bulldogs. Ouch.

On the Mark
With Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn all but falling out of the Heisman Trophy race after the Fighting Irish's embarrassing 47-21 loss to Michigan on Saturday, college football's premier individual award is up for grabs. Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith and tailbacks Steve Slaton of West Virginia and Adrian Peterson of Oklahoma have to be considered the front-runners at this point, but what about Garrett Wolfe of Northern Illinois?

Wolfe ran 24 times for 263 yards in Saturday's 31-13 win over Buffalo (the eighth 200-yard effort of his career) and leads the nation in rushing with 210 yards per game. Wolfe is averaging 38.3 yards more than Peterson and his rushing average is higher than that of 103 of 118 Division I-A teams, including top 10 teams Ohio State, USC, Auburn, Georgia and Michigan.

At his current pace, Wolfe would finish the season with more than 2,500 rushing yards. Barry Sanders ran for 2,628 yards at Oklahoma State and won the Heisman Trophy in 1988.

Off the Mark
Chuck Amato is still the coach at North Carolina State, seemingly for the time being, but he can no longer be considered the self-proclaimed "Man." A week after losing to Arkon at home, and then inexplicably questioning the admissions standards of teams from the Mid-American Conference (hey, Coach, have you looked in the mirror?), Amato took his team to Southern Mississippi on Saturday.

The result? A 37-17 loss, in which the Wolfpack committed three turnovers and 10 penalties.

We knew the Wolfpack would struggle to score this season because the West Coast offense former NFL coordinator Marc Trestman installed never seemed to be the right fit. But now NC State is struggling on defense, too, without Mario Williams, Manny Lawson and Stephen Tulloch. Southern Miss freshman Damion Fletcher ran for 177 yards and three touchdowns, and the Wolfpack never forced the Golden Eagles to punt.

It might only get worse in Raleigh. NC State plays Boston College on Saturday, Florida State on Oct. 5 and undefeated Wake Forest on Oct. 14.

On the Mark
You might not find a tougher football player in the country than Tennessee defensive tackle Justin Harrell. The senior postponed surgery to repair the torn biceps in his left arm so he could play against Florida in a key SEC game on Saturday night. Harrell did more than just play -- he went the whole way and had three tackles.

After the Volunteers blew a 17-7 lead and lost on a late touchdown, Harrell collapsed in the arms of Tennessee defensive line coach Dan Brooks on the sideline. He was too distraught to speak to reporters after the game, but issued this statement through the school's sports information director:

"It was a special day to get to be able to play. I'm glad I got to play the whole game. I just wish the outcome had turned out a little different."

Harrell, who is considered a potential first-round choice in next year's NFL draft, will undergo surgery this week and will miss the rest of the season.

Off the Mark
ACC Commissioner John Swofford, your rent for this space is past due. Once again, it was a bad week for college football's new power conference. Miami was blown out at Louisville. Virginia lost to, ahem, Western Michigan. NC State suffered another humiliating loss. North Carolina surrendered 521 yards offense to Division I-AA Furman and barely survived with a 45-42 victory. Georgia Tech needed three fourth-quarter touchdowns to pull away from Troy. Maryland didn't put up much of a fight against rival West Virginia. Thank goodness for Wake Forest.

On the Mark
Separation Saturday. Surprising 3-0 starts (Boston College, Wake Forest, Missouri, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, Purdue, South Florida, Houston). Kentucky's 2-1 record, its first above .500 in three seasons. Georgia Tech QB Reggie Ball (294 all-purpose yards versus Troy; 130 rushing). TCU's defense (held Texas Tech without a touchdown!). Michigan WR Mario Manningham (three touchdown catches versus Notre Dame). Wisconsin freshman P.J. Hill (184 yards and one TD versus
San Diego State). USC QB John David Booty. Washington State K Loren Langley. Arizona's Chris Jennings (ran for 201 and two TDs versus Stephen F. Austin). Michigan QB Chad Henne.

Off the Mark
This weekend's schedule. Stanford's big night. Virginia on national TV. Notre Dame's defense. Fresno State's kicking game. Surprising slow starts (Central Florida, Fresno State, Nevada, Baylor, Colorado, Miami, NC State). Kansas on the road (six wins away from home in 10 seasons). Bobby Ross' play calling versus Texas A&M. Duke. Temple. Illinois. Indiana. Jeff Bowden's offense. Larry Coker's program. Clemson's special teams. Alabama coach Mike Shula's wacky discipline. South Carolina QB Blake Mitchell. Reggie Bush.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.