HOUSTON — With a sellout crowd, a quality opponent and a prime-time television slot, No. 5 Louisville had a golden opportunity to make a lasting impression on the College Football Playoff selection committee Thursday night against Houston.
The Cardinals did just that … but it was the wrong impression, and it made the committee’s job that much easier.
With their playoff hopes at stake, the Cardinals laid an egg on the road, digging themselves a 31-point, first-half deficit that was too deep to crawl out of on the way to a 36-10 loss to the Cougars, putting any hope Louisville had of making the playoff's top four to rest.
From the moment the whistle blew, the Cardinals were in trouble. They fumbled the opening kickoff as Malik Williams ran into a teammate, Jeremy Smith, and lost the football. Houston recovered and scored on its first play from scrimmage, and the entire sequence served as a preview of what was to come. Before the Cardinals (9-2) knew what hit them, they turned the ball over twice, committed 10 penalties, yielded four sacks and trailed 31-0 at halftime.
Some issues that have plagued Louisville this season reared their ugly head all at once Thursday. Among them:
Turnovers: The Cardinals had an FBS-high 17 fumbles lost coming into the game. On Thursday, Louisville fumbled three times and lost all three (the Cougars turned those into 10 points).
Offensive-line play: Louisville allowed 25 sacks through its first 10 games, tied for 16th-most among the 65 Power 5 conference teams. On Thursday, Lamar Jackson was sacked 11 times.
Penalties: Prior to Thursday, the Cardinals had 74 penalties this season, 12th-most in the Power 5. Against Houston, the Cardinals finished with 15 for 114 yards.
Add all that up and you have the makings of a crushing defeat that knocked the Cardinals from playoff contention.
And what to make of Jackson’s Heisman Trophy chances? The sophomore quarterback, who leads the FBS in touchdowns (47), had a sizable lead on the rest of the pack before this loss. He threw the Cardinals' one and only touchdown against Houston. While it’s hard to blame Jackson — he rarely had sufficient time in the pocket to distribute the football or to run himself — a loss on such a big stage won’t help his chances.
The question is whether he had enough of a margin to absorb this type of defeat and still take home the trophy. If anything, the Cardinals’ protection problems might make his season all the more incredible. After being sacked three times in Louisville’s first four games, Jackson has been sacked 33 times in the past seven.
Though the Cardinals were facing a Group of 5 conference opponent in Houston (9-2), it wasn’t as though this was a game Louisville was overlooking. Houston caught the nation’s attention in September, opening the season with a convincing 33-23 victory over then-No. 3 Oklahoma. The Cougars themselves were in the playoff conversation briefly — well before the first 2016 rankings debuted — but losses to Navy and SMU knocked them out of contention for either that or a New Year's Six bid. Their performance Thursday is a bittersweet reminder to their fans of what could have been.
The Cougars have now defeated six consecutive top-25 teams in the Tom Herman era, the second-longest active streak in the nation behind Alabama. And they shut down Jackson last season. There's no doubt they had Louisville's attention and that this was a game the Cardinals should have been ready for.
They looked anything but, and it cost them any chance they had at the playoff.