By Derek DeBurger

No. 10 Louisville won a back-and-forth game to defeat the Miami Hurricanes and clinch their first-ever berth in the ACC title game on Saturday. This also marks the first time Louisville has beaten Miami on the road, and the first claiming of the Howard Schnellenberger Trophy.

This was an exciting game that came down to the last minute. Both teams came out firing on offense, tarnishing the reputations these two defenses have worked all year to build.

An intense back-and-forth

After stopping Miami’s first drive with a three-and-out, the Cards went 69 yards in nine plays capped off with a two-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jack Plummer to tight end Nate Kurisky.

Miami didn’t stay down for long, however, as the Hurricanes broke off massive plays to match the Cards on a 21-yard touchdown run by running back Mark Fletcher. Going into the game the Cards were third in the country with only three rushing plays of 20 or more yards given up this season; in Saturday’s game, the Cards gave up three rushing plays of 20 or more yards.

The ensuing Cardinal possession would be a major mistake by Plummer as he would throw an interception that was meant to be a pass to wide receiver Jamari Thrash who was wide open.

With the ball at the 50-yard line and an injection of momentum, the Canes once again broke off chunk plays to waltz into the endzone and take a 14-7 lead.

The Cards weren’t deterred, and running backs Isaac Guerendo and Maurice Turner took matters into their own hands. It started with the kickoff return that Turner took back 50 yards to the Miami 45-yard line, giving the Cards a short field. Guerendo then had 39 of the 45 yards in the drive and ended it with a 12-yard touchdown run.

After a couple of three-and-outs by Miami and Louisville, Miami went on a long, methodical drive to wear down the Cardinal defense over the course of 11 plays to go 82 yards for the score. The play to reach paydirt was a 34-yard end-around to wide receiver Brashard Smith which featured a ginormous pancake-block by freshman tackle Francis Mauigoa.

Louisville tried to one-up Miami’s 11-play drive with a 12-play drive of their own. They instead were stopped short, forcing kicker Brock Travelstead to kick a field goal to only cut into the lead instead of tying it up, and he missed the easy 24-yard field goal wide right. The long, successful drive came up with nothing to show for it.

Miami didn’t do anything in their response, going three-and-out and having to punt the ball back to the Cards. What happened next was probably the strangest drive of the game.

Through a strange sequence of referee corrections, the refs put close to 10 seconds back on the clock, which made all the difference in the world as the Cards scored with just eight seconds left in the half. Miami players and fans alike were furious, but that fury quickly turned to glee as Travelstead kicked the extra point too low and had it blocked.

Instead of going into the half tied up, the Canes had the lead 21-20.

A scary second-half

Louisville was set to receive the second-half kickoff, and they were able to march down the field into Miami territory until they were stopped on third down. Head coach Jeff Brohm sent the kicking unit onto the field, but instead of Travelstead, Cal transfer Nick Lopez came out with the special teams. Before today Lopez had only attempted one kick in his four-year college career, but it didn’t matter as he sent it through the uprights for a 40-yard field goal. Louisville now had a 23-21 lead.

After yet another pair of three-and-outs, Miami’s offense exploded going 55 yards in just three plays and scoring on a goal-line run by Fletcher. The Canes took the lead 28-23.

After two more defensive stands, the Cards went 89 yards down the field over 11 plays and quarterback Evan Conley punched the ball in on a six-yard run. Brohm has gone to Conley in his “wildcat” package all year long, and this touchdown run was by far the most successful example of the package. The touchdown only gave the Cards a one-point lead, so Brohm decided to go for two to push the lead to three. On the two-point conversion, Plummer was able to find Thrash in the endzone to put the Cards up 31-28.

The Canes weren’t down and out, though, as they went right down the field and tied the game off of a 51-yard field goal.

What the Cards have done all year long is prove their ability to win in any circumstance. The Cards had not yet been in a shootout, but the pressure wasn’t too much for the Cards as it only took three plays for them to take the lead right back on a 58-yard touchdown from wide receiver Kevin Coleman. Coleman was able to score due to two Miami defenders running into each other giving him only one man to beat on his way to the endzone.

Miami just would not go away, though.

In a must-score situation, the Canes moved the ball down the field and got to the seven-yard line with a pass interference call on Louisville. Louisville’s defense tightened up, leading Miami to only gain one yard in their first two plays, and forcing a time-out on the third-and-goal. The play out of the time-out would result in an incompletion, and on fourth-and-goal—what was maybe the most important play of Louisville’s season—cornerback Quincy Riley was able to bat away the pass to turn Miami over on downs.

Because Miami burned a timeout on the previous drive, the Canes could only stop the clock once; and because there was an unsportsmanlike penalty on Miami after the fourth down, Louisville was given extra breathing room. After failing to pick up the first down, the Cards were forced to punt the ball with 30 seconds left, but yet another unsportsmanlike penalty on Miami pushed them back another 15 yards. With 18 seconds left in the game, Miami was 30 yards further than they should’ve been to start their drive.

With little to no hope, Miami was still able to get the ball to midfield for one last Hail Mary. Quarterback Tyler Van Dyke threw the ball to the endzone and Louisville was able to tip it away, but it was tipped right to wide receiver Xavier Restrepo at the five-yard line. He attempted to zip into the endzone, but Riley was able to take him down with no time left on the clock.

If it weren’t for costly mistakes by Miami this game would’ve likely gone into overtime, but Louisville was able to hold on the take the victory 38-31.

A win no matter the circumstances

This was a game that Louisville had to fight to win. Dealing with the same injuries that they had the second half of the year and a quickly deteriorating kicking game, the Cards had to dig deep to pull out the win. As I said, Louisville had yet to get into a shootout this year, but Brohm and company continue to prove they can win no matter the circumstances.

Plummer played a great game — he threw for 308 yards and three touchdowns while spreading the ball around very evenly. Twelve different players caught a pass from Plummer in this game, including offensive lineman Trevonte Sylvester who had a one-yard touchdown to end the half.

All week the talk surrounding the game was about how Miami was going to sell out for the run and force Plummer to beat him. Plummer did in fact beat Miami’s defense, so much so that they had to quit stacking the box to respect him giving the running game an opportunity to make an impact.

Miami had the best rush defense in the ACC going into the game, and one the best in the country giving up less than 90 rushing yards per game. Guerendo was able to rush for 93 yards of his own while Louisville as a team had 162 rushing yards in the game.

Maybe the biggest story to come out of the game is the new question mark at kicker. This could’ve just been a benching to set Travelstead’s mind right, or it could have been the coaching staff moving onto the unproven Lopez. Either way, coach Brohm will have one more thing to think about going forward.

What this win means for the Cards is enormous. Since joining the ACC in 2014, Louisville had never competed in Charlotte for the conference’s top prize. Two weeks from today, Louisville will get that very opportunity against No. 4 Florida State. This also marks the first time in history a coach has been to conference championship games in back-to-back years with two different schools.

Louisville is 7-1 in ACC play—matching their best ACC record in 2016—and 10-1 on the year for their first 10-win season since 2013, and the first since joining the ACC.

Photo Courtesy // Taris Smith, U of L Athletics