By: Annie Moore
In a thrilling Music City Bowl win, defensive resiliency defined the Louisville Cardinals. Just eleven seconds into the game, Louisville lost its second leading tackler and defensive cornerstone, James Burgess, when he was ejected due to a controversial targeting call.
Just one play from scrimmage, and the Cardinal defense took two big hits when cornerback Shaq Wiggins was also shaken up on that play and left the field. Just a few minutes later, linebacker Trevon Young was taken off the field strapped to a backboard and taken to the hospital to be treated for a serious hip injury.
Five minutes into the Music City Bowl, Louisville was down three defensive starters, and had to call the next man up for defensive leadership. That leadership would prove key as the defense secured the Cardinal win down the stretch.
Stacey Thomas came in when Burgess was ejected, and led the team in tackles with 11.
“It was really frustrating, man. But we just had to keep our composure as a defense,” said senior linebacker Keith Kelsey. “Players go down all the time, you’ve got to have people come in and step up, which [Thomas] did, and Jaire Alexander. So we just kept our composure.”
There were several other harmful penalties and questionable calls down the stretch in the fourth quarter, when Texas A&M cut Louisville’s lead to six. The Aggies were making a final push down the field to pull off the come from behind win. But the defense, led by Kelsey and Devonte Fields, got two consecutive stops in Louisville territory to secure the win.
Fields set a season high for sacks with three, matched that with three tackles for loss, and had eight tackles. He finished the season with 11.5 sacks, the most by a Cardinal since Marcus Smith in 2013.
“We’ve been in those situations a lot,” Kelsey said. “It was nothing to us. I told Coach, I said ‘I got your back’, and we went out and stopped them. We like when the pressure is on us. The whole defense, man, we just came out and played. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before and we’ve got our brother’s back, the offense. So it was nothing.”
Aside from Burgess and a select other few, most of Todd Grantham’s defensive juggernaut is returning next year. And now they have the momentum of a signature grind it out win to carry them through the winter and into Louisville’s second ACC campaign.
“We’re going to be able to get bigger, faster and stronger with the young guys,” said head coach Bobby Petrino. “It’s exciting. I’m excited to get started.”
Freshman cornerback Jaire Alexander stepped up in Wiggins absence, with a career-best 10 tackles, six in the first half. He also returned a punt 32 yards in the first half, his personal best, and the longest by a Cardinal this season.
Alexander and Thomas join a host of young guns on offense who show promise and a tremendous upside moving forward. As this season comes to an end, Cardinal football looks towards a bright future.