Everything was slipping away.
After building a 36-14 lead with eight minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Rams football team gave up 19 unanswered points to the surging Louisville Cardinals. Clinging to a three-point lead Saturday night at Hughes Stadium, the CSU defense once again stopped an opponent on the final drive to secure the win.
What was a blowout turned into a sigh of relief for the Rams and a slim 36-33 victory.
CSU controlled the game for three quarters, and most of the fourth, and it looked as if the Rams were finally ready to put a team away. But a defensive collapse highlighted by a costly turnover and an on-side kick recovery put the Cardinals in position for a game-winning drive with 2:28 left in the game.
In what has become a trend this season for the Rams, the defense took the field in a do-or-die situation, having to stop quarterback Dave Ragone and the Cardinals one last time. But once again, the CSU defenders were up to the task, and after giving up a first down pass to Damien Dorsey, the Rams broke up three passes and took over on downs to end the game.
“It was a sigh of relief, you know,” defensive end Peter Hogan said. “All of us, I think, are wondering what really happened out there. We just let them get back in the game and it was tough to watch that happen. A win’s a win, but that was ugly.”
As frustrating as the game became for the Rams’ players, the Louisville team was devastated after coming all the way back only to fall short.
“We can learn from this and the only thing we can do is get better,” said Cardinals’ receiver Ronnie Ghent who finished with six catches for 69 yards. “You can’t let adversity bring you down. It was a good game; we just came up short. Everybody’s gotta pull together and look at themselves in the mirror and (ask), ‘Are you giving it your all?’ And if you ain’t, this is the wrong place for you to be.”
Taking a 22-point lead deep into the fourth quarter, it looked as if the Rams had finally earned the convincing win they had been looking for. But that was when everything fell apart.
After Ragone led a 12-play, 84-yard scoring drive, the Cardinals recovered an on-side kick and four plays later, scored on a one-yard run by Henry Miller to pull within 10 points at 36-26.
The Rams appeared to be back in control after they recovered another on-side kick attempt, but on the ensuing drive, Sapp coughed up his second fumble of the game and Montavious Stanley returned it 56 yards to the two-yard line. Two plays later, the Cardinals pumped in another score and trailed by only three points.
“It’s a series of a bunch of things not going our way. They were suddenly all fired up and we’re back on our heels,” Rams’ head coach Sonny Lubick said. “Then we come back to lead at the half, we get up a few points, but suddenly their back in it. I’m thinking, ‘This is fun, this is the way football should be.'”
A quick three-and-out by the Rams offense, after another failed on-side kick attempt by the Cardinals, forced CSU to punt. Joey Huber’s punt, which was his first of the game, was downed on Louisville’s two-yard line by virtue of a spectacular play by cornerback Rhett Nelson to save it from going into the end zone.
Louisville then faced the daunting task of driving 98 yards with no timeouts. They made it to the 26-yard line before Nelson broke up Ragone’s fourth-down pass to seal the victory for the Rams.
“What we needed to do was fight back a little bit sooner, before it got to that point,” Louisville head coach John L. Smith said. “I’m proud of them for fighting back, but we have to learn. I don’t think we had them prepared enough to win the football game and that’s the coaches. That’s our fault. They ran it all over us, through us, around us, everywhere they wanted to.”
A sellout crowd of 31,607 witnessed the much-anticipated debuts of redshirt freshman quarterback Justin Holland and true freshman running back Tristan Walker. After starting quarterback Bradlee Van Pelt’s second interception of the game was returned for a touchdown to start the second quarter, Holland took the helm for the ensuing drive. The freshman completed three passes for 57 yards before Sapp tied the game with his second touchdown of the night.
Van Pelt was back in the game for the next offensive series, but Holland returned later in the game and orchestrated another scoring drive.
“He’s a great individual and he’s a great quarterback and I’m more than happy to see him go out there and do good,” Van Pelt said of Holland, who finished the night with five completions for 94 yards. “But at the same time, of course, I want to be out on the field. I’m glad Justin Holland did it, because I see what I saw last year in myself. One day he’s gonna be a great player, hopefully when I’m gone.”
Walker replaced Sapp at several points in the game and the freshman had 24 yards on four carries. Junior running back Rahsaan Sanders also came in for Sapp on several drives and carried five times for 40 yards.
Van Pelt, who finished the game with 170 yards through the air on 11 of 25 completions, and Sapp controlled the flow of the game for the first three quarters keeping the Cardinals defense on the field for over 33 minutes. Both, however, were frustrated by the final score.
“I think we slacked off. We thought the game was over in the fourth quarter, but they got a high-powered offense over there,” said Sapp, who racked up 134 yards and three touchdowns, but fumbled twice. “Little mistakes kept them in the game. We can’t let a team keep on coming back. We gotta put them away.”
Players of the Game
Offense: Cecil Sapp. “The Diesel” continues to pound and punish opposing defenses. The senior, with gold teeth gleaming under the lights at Hughes, gained 134 yards and scored three touchdowns.
Defense: Wallace Thomas. The senior defensive end came up big when the Rams needed it most. Thomas had an interception at the goal line, a fumble recovery and a sack of the elusive Dave Ragone.
Special Teams: Dexter Wynn. Wynn returned a punt 66 yards for a touchdown and continues to be possibly the most potent scoring threat for the Rams.