LOUISVILLE — It was a season in a play, full of promise and desperation and everything in between.
Trailing Rutgers by a touchdown early in its season finale last week, Louisville crisply drove the field in search of the tying score and a little momentum.
Never miss a local story.
Quarterback Hunter Cantwell found wide receiver Josh Chichester wide open running over the middle. The redshirt freshman caught the ball in stride and turned up the field. He got to the Rutgers 1 and lowered his shoulder, preparing to give his injury-depleted and emotionally fragile team a much-needed boost.
One problem: Rutgers defensive back Courtney Greene was at the goal line to meet him. Greene's hit jarred the ball loose from Chichester and into the arms of Devin McCourty. Five plays later, the Scarlet Knights were celebrating a two-touchdown lead on their way to a 63-14 win.
This wasn't part of Steve Kragthorpe's plan.
Two years after replacing Bobby Petrino, Kragthorpe finds his tenure at a crossroads after Louisville finished 5-7, its first losing season in more than a decade.
"I'm very, very disappointed at the progress we've made the last two seasons," Kragthorpe said. "There's nobody more disappointed than I am."
During a nearly hourlong news conference the day after the Rutgers loss, Kragthorpe allowed that time is growing short for him to turn things around. In two years, Kragthorpe has more losses (13) than the nine Petrino racked up during his five seasons at the helm.
Louisville's struggles have led to grumbling among a fan base that sent 30,000 to Miami for the Orange Bowl 23 months ago. Athletic Director Tom Jurich has come out in public support of Kragthorpe, though the coach understands the Cardinals need to show progress quickly.
"It used to be a guy would come in and say he had a five-year plan," Kragthorpe said. "It isn't like that anymore. I know the window of opportunity isn't as great as it used to be for coaches."
There were glimpses of hope, particularly during a six-game stretch following a season-opening loss to Kentucky. The Cardinals improved to 5-2 after upsetting South Florida on Oct. 25 and briefly entered the conversation for the Big East championship.
Five straight losses followed, one seemingly more painful than the next. The Cardinals were stunned at Syracuse, blown out at Pittsburgh, let a second-half lead slip away against Cincinnati and watched West Virginia quarterback Pat White set an NCAA record for career rushing yards by a quarterback in a 35-21 defeat.
Then came Rutgers, where the Cardinals were embarrassed on national television. Louisville trailed 49-0 at the half on a miserable night that left the commentators wondering if Kragthorpe — who helped save football at Tulsa before replacing Petrino — was up for the job.
"I can't control what people say," Kragthorpe said. "We're just going to scratch and bite and claw."
The problem wasn't effort — Louisville was in every game but Rutgers deep into the second half — but execution. The Cardinals led the Big East with 30 turnovers, and quarterback Hunter Cantwell struggled developing a rapport with an injury-decimated receiving corps. Sophomore Doug Beaumont was a revelation, catching a team-high 62 passes. But he didn't score a touchdown and couldn't stretch the field.
Cantwell, who'd played well while subbing for former star Brian Brohm during his first three seasons, never looked comfortable in a starting role. He completed just 58 percent of his passes, threw 17 interceptions and had dozens of others batted down at the line of scrimmage.
It didn't help that he played behind an offensive line that was patchwork at best for most of the year, though the line had no trouble opening up running lanes for freshman star Victor Anderson. The Louisville native ran for a freshman-record 1,047 yards and showed an electrifying ability in the open field.
The defense, one of the nation's worst in 2007, rebounded under new coordinator Ron English. Louisville was ranked in the top half of the country in total defense, when injuries left the Cardinals with few healthy bodies. Only 25 defensive players made the trip to Rutgers, when the Cardinals gave up a whopping 671 yards of total offense.
If there's one thing Kragthorpe will be able to offer when he hits the recruiting trail over the next two months, it's opportunity. There are gaping holes to fill along the defensive line, offensive line and quarterback. Louisville will look for a mix of junior college players who can help now and some youngsters who can build toward the future, even if it comes sooner rather than later.
"I plan on staying here. I'm not leaving," he said. "So I need to not only make moves that will help us be a good football team next year but will help (me) be a better football coach in 2011."