Louisville caps off exciting first season in ACC

College Contributor Network

As the final minutes clicked down in the fourth quarter of a blockbuster game in Cardinal Stadium this past Saturday, so did the minutes click down on Louisville's regular season. A bowl game still awaits the team after a 9-3 season, but there is plenty to take away from the Cards' first season in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

The season started with a great measure of doubt, with the new conference, new go-to guy at the quarterback spot and Bobby Petrino back at the helm. After an exciting 12-1 season with Teddy Bridgewater in 2013, many were expecting another great season. Still others were pessimistic, due to the loss of Bridgewater, Charlie Strong, and many other key members of the team while heading into a new, competitive conference.

What CardNation got was a thrilling season, with a respectable record, some quality matchups against ACC opponents, and a sense of what it has to look forward to in the future.

The season started with a conference matchup against the University of Miami. The Cardinals' last victory in 2013 came over the Hurricanes in the Russell Athletic Bowl, and the 'Canes were looking for redemption when they came to Louisville. But the Cards and Bobby Petrino opened the season with a decisive win 31-13.

The Cards moved on to rout Murray State 66-21, before heading to Virginia for the first road game of the season. The Commodores proved to be too much for the Cardinals, outlasting them 23-21 and giving Louisville its first loss of the season. The Cards got back on track after a visit to Florida International, which they won in a dominating defensive effort, 34-3.

Louisville came back home and defeated the Demon Deacons of Wake Forest 20-10, continuing to rack up ACC wins and putting together an impressive postseason resume despite the loss at Virginia, then went on the road to beat Syracuse in the Carrier Dome, 28-6.

What followed the Syracuse game was perhaps Louisville's greatest challenge of the season, playing Clemson in South Carolina. Will Gardner had 150 yards on the day, and had the Cardinals in the red zone with 1:08 left in the game to score the winning TD. But Clemson held them, and Louisville got its second loss of the season, 23-17.

When Louisville returned home, it handled North Carolina State 30-18, and the buzz in the off-week after that game centered around the Thursday night game that had been circled on everyone's calendar since the schedule was announced -- the day the Florida State Seminoles would come to town. When that cold night came on Oct. 30, the Seminoles won the day, despite Louisville jumping out to a 21-0 lead. But Louisville left that game with the confidence that comes from contending with the best team in the conference, and perhaps the nation.

The Cardinals closed out the season with three straight wins. The first came at Boston College with a 38-19 victory, before Louisville went to South Bend to defeat the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in a landmark win for the program.

The last game of the season was the annual matchup against in-state rival Kentucky. Emotions were high as the game included multiple confrontations between the teams, and seven lead changes. Quarterback Reggie Bonnafon, who got the starting nod after Will Gardner had a season-ending injury, was taken out of the game with a knee injury and forced third-string QB, and redshirt freshman, Kyle Bolin to enter the game.

Bolin had a dominating performance, going 29-of-31 for 381 yards and three touchdowns on the day, and shocked everyone in the stadium in leading Louisville to it's fourth straight Governor's Cup victory, 44-40.

With the win over Kentucky, Louisville ended the season with a 9-3 record, and a glimpse of what could be to come in future seasons. This year will see the departure of 23 seniors, including many key players on both sides of the ball. DeVante Parker will leave as well as Michael Dyer, Eli Rogers and Kai De La Cruz, and they combined for the majority of Louisville's offense this season.

On the other side of the ball, perhaps the biggest loss from a team leader standpoint is defensive end Lorenzo Mauldin. Mauldin was an integral part of the team both in on-field performance, and team moral. When Mauldin wasn't racking up sacks and tackles, he was seen hyping up the crowd, and encouraging his teammates on the sidelines.

But despite these losses, there is much for CardNation to look forward to in the seasons to come. Bobby Petrino is back, and it about to go recruiting to build the Petrino offenses of old. This season saw an emphasis on defense, due to much of the team being comprised of Charlie Strong's players. But now, Petrino gets to put his troops together.

Then there's the quarterback spot. Reggie Bonnafon will enter his sophomore season with starting reps after getting experience this season, which will be vital headed into future seasons in the ACC. And Kyle Bolin gave another glimpse of what could be to come for the offense. Other returning players on offense include Brandon Radcliff, Gerald Christian and James Quick, who all put in reps this season.

While the record wasn't as stellar as the 2014 season, there are many positives to be taken away from Louisville's debut season in the ACC. Bobby is back, the offense is getting ready to be molded into his system, and there are already some strong tools in place.

This season proved that Louisville has found a place in a power conference, and can contend on the highest level of collegiate football. The first pages in this new chapter of Cardinal football have been exciting, and there's even more excitement to come.

Annie Moore is a junior at the University of Louisville majoring in Communications with a Sport Administration minor. She believes Pete Rose should be in the Hall of Fame. Follow her on Twitter: @AnyMoreSports
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