LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) -- Probably the last thing anyone expected in Louisville's football game against No. 4 Notre Dame on Saturday afternoon was a defensive struggle. After all, this was a UofL team that had given up 46 points to Georgia Tech (Georgia Tech!) the week before.
Surprise! Defense kept the Cardinals (1-4, 0-4) in contention all the way in windy Notre Dame Stadium as they waited for their offense to catch fire. And waited. And waited.
It never happened and the Irish (4-0, 3-0) finally locked down their 22nd straight home field victory, 12-7, by holding onto the football for the last eight minutes to deny the Cards a major upset and hand them their fourth straight loss.
It was by far UofL's best game defensively. Notre Dame started the afternoon as the fifth-best rushing team in the nation, averaging 271 yards on the ground and 6.3 yards per carry. Against the Cards, the Irish averaged 4.7 yards per carry. Louisville limited its hosts to one touchdown, forcing three field goal attempts in the red zone.
"That's the best we've played all season and I'm extremely proud of everybody in the secondary and up front," UofL cornerback Tre Clark said. "I felt like we had it in us."
"It was night and day for our defense," quarterback Malik Cunningham said. "Guys were flying to the ball, doing their assignments. I salute those guys."
Too bad he couldn't salute the offense too, because it couldn't reciprocate. Even though UofL kept the Irish out of the end zone most of the day, the winners controled the football almost from start to finish, and when the Cards had it they couldn't do much with it. UofL ran only 45 plays to Notre Dame's 68 and managed just 219 yards -- 123 passing and 96 rushing. The Irish set the tone in the first quarter by running 26 plays vs. UofL's five.
"First of all, congratulations to Notre Dame; they found a way to win at end, things we're still learning," Satterfield said. "I told the guys in the locker room I was proud of them and how they handled the week. We had an opportunity to get a victory. But the guys came in and did lot of things better in preparation, things we have to do if we're going to have a successful program.
"The guys came out and competed, did a much better job limiting big plays, tackled a lot better, had a lot of hats around the football, played better on the back end in passing situations and gave ourselves a chance. We just didn't have a lot of opportunities offensively -- 45 plays is the fewest I've ever run. They did a great job staying on field and we didn't. But guys came out and played hard and did lot of great things we can build off of."
Notre Dame hit a pair of field goals in the first quarter and held a 6-0 lead at halftime. The Cards scored on their first series of the second half, with Cunningham throwing a 29-yard touchdown pass to Javian Hawkins to cap an 83-yard drive for a 7-6 lead.
But Notre Dame scored on its next possesion, as quarterback Ian Book scrambled into the left edge of the end zone from 13 yards out with 3:43 left in the third quarter. UofL thwarted the two-point conversion attempt and the score stayed 12-7 the rest of the afternoon.
"All in all, I know it was only 12-7 and won't go down as an instant classic," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "But boy we did a lot of really good things today. We controled the ball virtually the entire game, we just couldn't finish in the red zone. But our guys have to be excited about a win. Winning is really hard."
The Cards entertained hopes of getting a final shot at the upset after they had to punt on their first series of the fourth quarter with 7:55 left. But UofL couldn't wrest the ball away from Notre Dame, which converted three third downs while using 15 plays to run out the clock.
Hawkins, who was averaging 117 yards per game, netted just 51 on 15 carries for an average of 3.4 yards per carry. Kyren Williams, the ACC's rushing leader at 119.0 ypg, picked up 127 yards for the winners on 25 carries.
"We've got to do a much better job when we run the ball," Satterfield said. "When you don't even run 50 plays, it's hard to get any kind of rhythm throwing the ball. I didn't call our 10th passing play until the second half and that's never happened before."
Coaches typically disdain terming an unexpectedly narrow defeat as a moral victory, and while that may not necessarily be a description of Louisville's effort that Satterfield would favor, it certainly looked like the kind of inspired performance that could propel the Cards into a resurgent second half of the season, especially with the schedule lightening up.
Count former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, who was part of the NBC broadcasting team, as one of those who was impressed with Louisville's performance and sees brighter days ahead for the Cards.
"Their defense played outstanding football today," Dungy said. "Louisville is better than their record shows. We knew that from watching the tape."
UofL will get a chance to show that its improved performance is the start of a trend when it hosts Florida State next Saturday at noon in Cardinal Stadium.
Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college football and basketball for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.