Louisville defense fills holes
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Louisville's defense, so porous in losses to Kentucky and Utah, stiffened against Illinois.
Linebacker Ramon Brayan said Robert Holcombe spurred the revival.
"We got a little upset with a (story) that said Robert Holcombe was licking his lips (for this game)," Brayan said. "We just basically went out there and showed them what Louisville defense was all about: stopping the run and playing hard."
Holcombe rushed for 165 yards but needed 40 carries. The UI's all-time leading rusher also fumbled twice for the third time in his career. The other two times were in his freshman season, against Missouri on Sept. 10, 1994, and against Ohio State Oct. 8, 1994. Going into the game, Holcombe had 10 career fumbles.
"He busted some runs. He's a great player," Louisville coach Ron Cooper said. "But I'm pleased how our defense hung in there in the second half.
"(Holcombe) is a strong running back, a guy who will be in the NFL next year."
Four Cardinals off last year's nationally ranked defense were drafted by National Football League teams. Another Cardinal was signed as a free agent.
Kentucky and Utah rolled up a combined 915 yards in offense. Illinois finished with 392 total yards but did not score after the first quarter.
Louisville started two freshmen and two sophomores on its defensive line.
"We didn't get down after the first half," Cooper said. "Defensively, we made plays. We played a group of guys who hung in there and wanted to fight."
Besides returning a punt 85 yards for a touchdown, Arnold Jackson also delivered a key block on Ibn Green's game-clinching 63-yard touchdown reception.
Still, Jackson was not happy afterward.
"He had his head ducked," Cooper said. "This is the guy who made a great block on our last touchdown and ran a punt back for a touchdown. Arnold can make plays."
Jackson's punt return was Louisville's longest since Oct. 9, 1982, when Frank Minnifield went 88 yards for a score against Temple.
Getting the boot.
Cooper was not pleased with his kicking game. The Cardinals missed a field goal and an extra point and had a field goal attempt blocked with only 10 players on the field.
"We have two kickers, and they're both on scholarship," Cooper said. "They eat a lot of food over there. We feed them, so they're supposed to kick."
Illinois will have to wait two years to see Louisville's new football home.
Original plans had the Cardinals opening 45,000-seat Papa John's Cardinal Stadium this season, just in time to host the Illini and Penn State next Saturday.
But construction was delayed, and the UI doesn't return until Sept. 18, 1999.
Cooper said the school patterned the complex – a few blocks from Churchill Downs – after Michigan, Tennessee and West Virginia stadiums.
"We traveled all around to look at some top facilities to see what could make ours special," Cooper said. "We're building a special stadium, and that will make it easier to attract better teams."
Stating his case.
The only player on Louisville's roster from Illinois, defensive end Kendrick Gholston, made an impact.
The senior from Lane Tech made four tackles and nearly intercepted a Mark Hoekstra pass in the third quarter. Gholston shadowed Robert Holcombe in the flat and had Hoekstra's ill-advised pass bounce out of his hands.
There was no defender between Gholston and the end zone.
Gholston, who played high school football with former Illini Cyron Brown, knocked down two other Hoekstra passes.
"It's always fun to play against the team I rooted for growing up," Gholston said.
Cooper had some harsh words for the fans who booed the Cardinals in their home-opening loss to Utah last week.
Saturday's crowd of 36,824 was the 19th largest in stadium history. It booed after Louisville's first play, a handoff to Frank Moreau, who was stuffed by the UI.
"We've got great fans," Cooper said. "A few years ago, this place wouldn't have been sold out. And we'll sell every seat in the new stadium next year. The enthusiasm for the program is great.
"I've been at a couple places where fans don't show up and don't say anything."
Cooper had former Cardinal Johnny Unitas address his team for a minute or two at Friday's walkthrough. Unitas was in town to help dedicate the BellSouth Johnny Unitas Football Museum and was honored during Saturday's first half.
The Cardinals applauded Unitas after his short speech.
"It lets them see there have been some pretty good players to come through Louisville," Cooper said. "He's been successful not only on the football field but as a businessman and a family man."
Cooper said Unitas was delighted to have a chance to speak to the team but declined the coach's other offer.
"I made an announcement that he was going to play quarterback and our AD (Bill Olsen) would call the plays," Cooper joked.
The game against Illinois wasn't the only thing on Ron Cooper's mind Saturday.
The Louisville coach wore a beeper on his belt, just in case. His wife Kim is pregnant with their first child. The baby is due Sept. 17.
Kim Cooper attended Saturday's game. If she went into labor, Ron Cooper was ready to throw down the headset and turn the team over to his assistants.
Fortunately for the Cardinals, the call never came. If needed, Cooper will wear the beeper next Saturday when Louisville hosts Penn State.