Justin Burke's first pass was high. So was his second. And his third. Forgive the Louisville quarterback if he was nervous making his first start in nearly four years.
Burke, a former state champion at Lexington Catholic who sat out last season after transferring from North Carolina State, settled down to throw for 223 yards and Victor Anderson ran for 93 yards and two touchdowns as the Cardinals slogged past Indiana State 30-10 on Saturday night in Louisville.
"I just need to calm myself down and get back in the rhythm in the pocket," Burke said. "They're the kind of rookie mistakes I've got to get rid of. I was a little too amped up."
He wasn't the only one.
The Cardinals needed most of the first half to take control against the overmatched Sycamores (0-2), a member of the Football Championship Subdivision, and never really looked crisp.
Burke threw two interceptions. The offense converted just 1 of 9 third downs and the Cardinals committed 14 penalties for 128 yards. There will be plenty to work on before a showdown with rival Kentucky in two weeks.
"We didn't play well, it was sloppy," said Coach Steve Kragthorpe. "We'll have to get better. I don't think anybody is pumped up or happy. I'm happy we won, but I'm disappointed with the way we played."
Louisville's defense held Indiana State — a member of the Football Championship Subdivision — to 101 yards of total offense and forced four turnovers.
Still, it wasn't exactly a romp for the Cardinals.
They paid Indiana State $250,000 to make the trip, and the Sycamores — who lost their season-opener to Quincy, an NAIA school — hardly rolled over.
Burke, who won the starting job during training camp, looked nervous in his first real game action since helping Lexington Catholic win the Kentucky Class 3A state title in 2005.
Though not blessed with the strongest arm, he appeared to have a little too much zip early. One pass deflected off the hands of a receiver and into the arms of Indiana State's Santino Davis.
The pick set up a Chris Stutzriem touchdown run that gave the Sycamores a 7-3 lead. It had a crowd ready to see a blowout groaning and wondering if the Cardinals were picking up where they left off last season, when they lost five straight to finish 5-7 for their first losing season in more than a decade.
Though Athletics Director Tom Jurich has preached patience, Kragthorpe knows his team must show signs of improvement to quell a fan base wondering what happened to a program that won the Orange Bowl three years ago.
Burke eventually settled down, connecting on six straight passes at one point as touchdown runs by Bilal Powell and Anderson put Louisville up 17-7. Burke looked adept in the two-minute offense, guiding Louisville 80 yards in 90 seconds only to throw another interception to Davis on the last play of the half.
"Some of the guys came up to me at halftime and said 'It's OK to make mistakes, we got your back,'" Burke said. "Once I calmed down and got my feet under me, I settled down. I didn't play great. I know I have to play better."
Anderson capped an 87-yard drive with a 14-yard touchdown run midway through the third quarter to put the Cardinals up 24-7. Louisville's Terence Simien picked off Stutzriem three plays after the touchdown, and Ryan Payne added the second of his three field goals to put the Cardinals up 27-7.
"We showed glimpses of what we wanted to do as an offense, but we shot ourselves in the foot way too much," Kragthorpe said.
Louisville had 419 yards of offense, but couldn't really produce the big play outside of a few electrifying kick returns by Trent Guy. Their longest gain of the night was a 28-yard run by Powell, and Burke missed several open receivers downfield.
Ultimately, the biggest thrill of the night may have come from Muhammad Ali. The Louisville native took in the game from a luxury suite, and the crowd chanted his name when a camera cut to him during a timeout.
Anderson, who was the first freshman to break 1,000 yards in a season last year, preferred to focus on the positive. The Cardinals won, and after the nightmarish ending to last season, he'll take it.
"A win is always great, whether it's by one point or 20 points," he said. "It's a positive thing."
Centre 34, Hanover 20: Tyler Osterman threw two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter, and Centre scored one more on a fumble return to rally on the road in the season opener for both teams. Osterman threw for 324 yards and ran for 104, accounting for 85 percent of the Centre offense.
Thomas More 14, John Carroll 7: Trevor Stellman ran 17 yards for his second touchdown, wrapping up a 98-yard drive with 5:11 left, and the visiting Saints held on for a victory in their season debut.
Cumberlands 74, Kentucky Christian 7: Fred Byers Jr. and Cohleach Holmes led the way as the host Patriots rumbled for 586 rushing yards. Byers had 99 on the ground, including a 78-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. Holmes got 72 of his 93 yards on a TD run just before the end of the half. Seven other players had at least four carries and more than 30 yards. Cumberlands passed six times.
Union 57, Virginia-Wise 7: Mike Brinkley threw for 245 yards and three touchdowns, and Antonio Drane added two more on the ground as the Bulldogs won their opener at home.
Campbellsville 38, Cumberland (Tenn.) 37: David Mason busted into the end zone from 2 yards out with 1:34 left in the third quarter, and the visiting Tigers held on to win their opener for the first time since 2004. Wayne Coffee ran for 214 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries.
Albany State 45, Kentucky State 0: A.J. McKenna threw for four touchdowns, and Albany State held KSU to 81 total yards.