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DEFENSE RATTLES RAGONE'S CAGE IN SEASON-OPENING STUNNER

Date story was published: Monday, September 02, 2002

LOUISVILLE -- In August, Louisville basked in its back-to-back Conference USA championships, its No. 17 pre-season ranking and its determination to validate its upward football mobility with a BCS bowl bid.

Then Kentucky won last night's opener 22-17 and -- poof -- reality grounded the Cardinals with a thud.

With no attractive alternative, U of L clung to the possibility of revival through bitter-tasting blue-coated medicine.

"Let's look at the positive," Coach John L. Smith said. "The positive is we don't have to listen to undefeated BCS bull---- anymore and we don't have to think that we're special. So now maybe we can get on with being the Cards. You know, go to work and be the blue-collar guys that we're supposed to be."

Quarterback Dave Ragone, his Heisman Trophy candidacy seemingly aborted (14-of-39 passing), also found a silver lining in the defeat -- knocking the Cards from their gilded cage.

"I'm kind of glad," he said. "We can throw all the hype away. I came here to play football."

Ragone, who took a pounding when left exposed by an inexperienced offensive line, had a premonition Kentucky would snap U of L's three-game winning streak in the series.

"I tried to tell myself it was a nightmare after the game," he said. "I dreamed about this game. I woke up in cold sweats."

Smith declined to say he saw defeat coming. "I don't want to tell you," he said.

But the U of L coach said practice had made the Cards imperfect -- and ripe to be beaten.

"For the last two weeks, we had not prepared well," Smith said. "We haven't gone to the field and done the things that are necessary, those things that got us here. If we don't go to the field and win it out there in practice, you certainly are not going to win it on Saturday."

Inconsistency marked the Cards' practices, he said. Against UK, U of L had flashes, most notably the 100-yard kickoff return by redshirt freshman Broderick Clark to open the second half. Clark's untouched dash drew Louisville within 16-14. And the Cards took their only lead (17-16) on a field goal with 5:51 left in the third quarter.

Then UK countered with a pair of field goals, while Louisville dissolved in a puddle of Ragone incompletions (eight straight in the fourth quarter).

"It's not a light switch you can turn on and off," Smith said of the Cards' inconsistency. "We tried to turn it on in the second half and it flickered. That's about it."

After rushing for only 55 yards (47 from the ever-scrambling Ragone), the now-humbled Cards must establish a running game. "If you don't block it, buddy, how do you expect to run it?" Smith said. "You've got to block somebody. Pretty simple."

A running game -- and an offensive line that blocks effectively -- will not only give relief to U of L's solid defense. It will save Ragone.

"If he gets beat like tonight, he's not going to make it through the season," Smith said. "So we better take it to heart and we better do something to protect him."

That starts in practice. Or, Smith hoped, even sooner.

"Maybe now we'll take a look in the mirror and see what's really there instead of the facade we thought we were seeing," the U of L coach said. "Everybody telling you you're a good football team doesn't make you a good football team, OK?"

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