MEMPHIS -- With two of the nation's top offensive teams slated to play in the 43rd annual Liberty Bowl, a game that was billed as an offensive shootout and a high-scoring affair, who would have thought the game would net just 38 total points and 562 yards between the two teams.
On this day, the Louisville defense held BYU to just three points in the second half, while MVP Dave Ragone and the Cardinals scored 14 unanswered points over the last two quarters to give the banged-up Cougars their second loss of the season.
"Louisville is a very good team," BYU head coach Gary Crowton said. "We knew coming in they would play hard, play tough and present one of the toughest games for us this season. They have an excellent coaching staff and did a better job of preparing for this game than we did. I thought we did a good job of preparing. We had some great practices, but they were a little better than we were today."
The loss dropped BYU to 12-2 on the season and marked their third straight bowl defeat. The victory improved Louisville to 11-2 on the year and marked the team's first Liberty Bowl victory under head coach John L. Smith.
The Cougars held tough through the first half, trailing 14-7 at the break. BYU was without Doak Walker winner and consensus All-American Luke Staley, who missed the game with a broken leg. Staley averaged over 145 yards rushing and 15 points per game. All-Conference performer Reno Mahe, who had averaged over 90 yards receiving per game and had scored nine TDs during the season, saw limited action in the first half and did not play in the second half after having surgery on his knee just two weeks prior. In addition, two defensive standouts were slowed with injuries that would require surgery following the bowl game.
"We were definitely not at full strength out there today," Crowton said. "We could have used a few more healthy players, but that's part of the game. I don't want that to be an excuse for why we didn't win this game. We played well and we had some young guys really step it up.
"I can say enough about this team and the way they have performed on and off the field all season long. They are a great bunch of guys and no one can take away their many accomplishments. 12-2 isn't bad at all. We wanted to win this one, but 12-2 isn't a bad year."
After Louisville's Zek Parker returned the opening kick 70 yards to set up a Henry Miller one-yard run, just five plays later, the BYU defense managed to shut down the high-powered Cardinal offense, holding them scoreless until late in the second quarter. In fact, the oft-criticized BYU defense again silenced its critics, holding Louisville to just 25 yards rushing in the first half and only 102 yards passing. For the game, the Cougar defense gave up just 58 yards rushing and 228 yards passing.
The Cougars tied things up at 7-7 when Brandon Doman lateraled to Dustin Rykert for a 10-yard run on a little tackle-eligible trick-o-ration. For the play, Rykert, a 6-foot-7, 305 pound left tackle was named BYU's Offensive Player of the Game.
"I still think that play should be illegal," Crowton joked. "But as long as it's not, we're going to use it."
Faced with a fourth-and-five on their own 40 yard line, Crowton looked to catch Louisville off guard with a fake punt. Senior Ned Stearns took the snap and was stopped at the line of scrimmage. The play proved costly as the Cardinals took over on downs and made BYU pay. Nine plays later Chip Mattingly scored on a one-yard pass from Ragone to go up 14-7 with :14 remaining in the first half.
"I made the decision to go for it," Crowton said. "I felt like we could catch them by surprise, get the first down and with the momentum, score right before the half. I felt it would give us all the momentum in the world coming out for the second half. I'm not sure I would make the same call. In fact, knowing how it turned out, I know I wouldn't make the same call. You know what they say about hindsight. But, that's all part of the game. You have to take chances every now and then. Under the circumstances, I felt like we had to take that chance. Sometimes you have to do that."
BYU's Matt Payne connected on a 29-yard field goal with 7:58 remaining in the third quarter, cutting the U of L lead to 14-10. The Cardinals answered with an eight-play 71-yard drive to go up 21-10. The Louisville defense, led by Curry Burns and his 12 tackles, stiffened and shut the BYU offense down for the remainder of the game.
Louisville struck again early in the fourth quarter, posting a 27-yard pass from Ragone to Ronnie Ghent to give the Cardinals a 28-10 lead.
After the two teams traded possessions, the Cougars looked to be putting a scoring drive together. Senior quarterback Brandon Doman engineered a 12-play drive that covered 42 yards, but was stopped short after Dewayne White sacked Doman for an 11-yard loss. The sack forced a fourth-and-27 situation. Doman's fourth-down attempt to Toby Christensen fell incomplete, ending any chance of a scoring situation.
The BYU defense stopped Louisville on its next possession, forcing the Cardinals to punt. The punt was downed at the BYU 22 yard line. The Cougars had one last chance to make the game interesting, but Doman's pass on first-and-10 from the BYU 36 was intercepted by Chris Johnson at the U of L 47. Ragone took a knee on three straight plays as time ran out.
Doman finished the night with 18-of-37 attempts for 192 yards, while Ragone completed 19-of-28 attempts for a game-high 228 yards. Senior Paul Peterson, who had earned his first career start at BYU in his final game, led all rushers with 73 yards on 15 carries. BYU defensive end Ryan Denney was named BYU's most valuable defensive player after recording eight tackles, including three for a combined loss of 11 yards.