It was all smiles, hugs and high-fives in the area outside the tunnel leading into the Kentucky locker room at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Defensive MVP Mike Edwards clutched the game ball. Offensive MVP Stephen Johnson didn’t quite know what to do with himself. And star running back Boom Williams, who just minutes earlier was laid out on the field in an injured heap, strode off that field beaming and bellowing in the direction of a few UK faithful.
“Be a nice ride back to Lexington!” Williams yelled after the Cats’ 41-38 upset of Louisville. “Governor’s Cup is coming back home, baby!”
Not 50 feet away, it was a different mood.
Nine days earlier, the Louisville Cardinals were 9-1 on the season with the clear favorite for the Heisman Trophy and a clear path to the College Football Playoff.
Last week’s 36-10 rout at the hands of Houston was a surprise. What happened Saturday was a stone-cold shocker.
The faces of Bobby Petrino, Lamar Jackson and the rest of the Cardinals in the postgame interview room told the story.
“You know, sometimes in this game, you find ways to win games and sometimes you find ways to lose games,” Petrino said. “I certainly feel like we found a way to lose that game.”
The way it happened was as surprising as the loss itself.
After going back and forth all afternoon, Jackson — the sophomore superstar and runaway favorite for the Heisman Trophy — ran in from 1 yard out and tied the game at 38 with 7:44 left. Jackson struck the Heisman pose in the end zone, UK freshman Benny Snell lost a fumble two minutes later, and it looked like the perfect setup for Jackson to add another great moment in a young career already so full of them.
Jackson picked apart the Wildcats’ defense from there, driving the Cardinals inside the UK 10. On first-and-goal in a tie game with less than two minutes left, he tried to make some magic.
“We were doing good,” Jackson said afterward. “And … turnover.”
Jackson took the snap on a read-option play, and — instead of handing the ball off, as Petrino later said he should have — Jackson tried to make the play himself. He scrambled around in the backfield, escaped a couple of UK defenders and tried to lunge forward and get as many yards as he could.
When the ball popped out of Jackson’s hand, his knee was still a couple of inches from the ground. When the referees cleared the scrum, UK linebacker Courtney Love had recovered the fumble. The Cats’ ensuing drive ended with the game-winning field goal.
“It was just me trying to make big plays,” Jackson said. “Make plays. Try to win the game.”
He’d already made so many plays this fall.
Seemingly every time Jackson ran the ball Saturday, the PA announcer ticked off some school or conference record that he had just broken. He’ll exit the regular season with 3,390 passing yards, 1,538 rushing yards and a total of 51 touchdowns. He’s surely still the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, but he blamed himself for this loss.
“At the end, when it came down to it, it was me,” he said.
Petrino criticized some of his star player’s decision-making Saturday — there were two second-half interceptions, too, before a third on a last-ditch Hail Mary with no time left — but he stuck up for Jackson and cut short his postgame press conference after someone questioned whether the QB was content to stay in the pocket against the Cats. “Lamar competes his butt off,” Petrino fired back.
Senior running back Brandon Radcliff came into the interview room a few moments after Jackson left. The veteran said he had already told the young star how he felt.
“He’s been tremendous to us and this program, and he got us all these wins,” Radcliff said. “The competitive spirit that he has, he’s always going to put it on himself, but nobody in that locker room believes it was on Lamar.
“We just came out there and we didn’t play to the best of our ability today, and the end result shows that.”