A Regional Rivalry Renewed
by Aaron Lynn
It only takes about two hours to get from Bloomington, Indiana to Louisville, Kentucky, but prior to Saturday, the Cardinals and Hoosiers hadn’t faced one another since 1986. Lucas Oil Stadium was split between the Crimson-clad Hoosier faithful and the Louisville fanbase for an eagerly anticipated matchup of Big Ten vs. ACC.
Both teams entered the contest with positive momentum after working out some frustrations against FCS opponents. First year Louisville head coach Jeff Brohm was no stranger to facing Indiana, having faced the “Old Oaken Bucket” rivals five times in his previous stop at Purdue, winning four of those games. On the other side, Tom Allen was looking for a statement win to jump start the 2023 campaign after suffering through disappointing years in 2021 and 2022.
Louisville had a distinct advantage in the first quarter. Although the game remained scoreless until the final moments of the period thanks to a missed field goal on the opening drive, the defense benefited from a helpful carom off the hands of Indiana and Cam’Ron Kelly claimed an interception. Just two plays later, veteran QB Jack Plummer connected with his favorite target Jamari Thrash who raced past the Indiana defense for an 85-yard score. A transfer from Georgia State, Thrash has been prolific for the Cardinals’ offense and his opening score of the game was already his 5th touchdown of the season (4 receiving, 1 rushing).
The Hoosiers struggled to get the offense moving against the aggressive defense of Louisville, who led the country in sacks last season and were quick to take advantage of a banged up Indiana offensive line. Quarterback Tayven Jackson made his second start of the season and his first as the full-time “QB1” following an early battle for the starting role with Brendan Sorsby. After an Indiana punt, Louisville took control and methodically marched down the field on a touchdown drive that couldn’t have been any more different than their first score. Maurice Turner punched the ball in the end zone on the ground to cap off a drive that took 6:26 off the clock and relied heavily on the ground game. Just a few minutes later, running back Jawhar Jordan got loose for a 25-yard score and the Cardinals had firmly seized control and took a 21-0 lead into halftime.
Time to change the channel, right? As a certain former Louisville and Indiana head coach would say: not so fast, my friend.
The Hoosiers faced an uphill battle. Their offense had been stifled and their secondary, which had been a strength the first two weeks of the season, had been gashed several times. To make matters more difficult, Indiana had to kick off to the Cardinals to start the second half. Or, did they? The Hoosiers executed a perfect onside kick and recovered the loose ball and, for the first time since the early stages of the game, the Indiana fans finally had reason to make some noise. The volume was turned up even more when the speedy Jaylin Lucas shook a couple of Louisville defenders and dashed through the end zone.
The Indiana defense stood strong and benefited from a helpful bounce of their own when Philip Dunham picked off a long bomb to the end zone from Jack Plummer. The Hoosiers marched almost the entire field (97 yards) for another touchdown score and all of a sudden Indiana had pulled to within one score late in the third quarter. That defense continued their strong play and forced back-to-back Louisville punts. Jackson led the Hoosiers down the field and the threat of a tie game was suddenly all too real for the Cardinals who watched their comfortable halftime lead all but vanish. On a 3rd and Goal from the Louisville 8, Jackson scrambled to the right pylon and dove for the end zone a la Michael Penix Jr. against Penn State but came up just a “foot and a half short” according to the referee following a review.
On fourth down from the 1 1/2 foot line, the Hoosiers opted to give the ball to running back Josh Henderson with the game on the line, but the play developed too slowly, allowing Louisville’s defensive front to stuff him well short of the goal line. The Cardinals took over and escaped from the clutches of their own goal line and eventually earned a couple more first downs to run out the clock and to claim a closely contested victory.
There has been some healthy banter between the two fanbases leading up to the game. One of the driving factors is that Indiana recently cancelled the remainder of the series against Louisville. Cardinals fans have accused Indiana of "ducking" their team but, as Tom Allen pointed out, the significant conference realignment changes will alter future schedules. Indiana isn't the only team in the country clearing out their previously scheduled non-conference games, but you can see why Louisville fans might be upset, especially after a win on Saturday.
What the win means for the 3-0 Louisville Cardinals
You can’t start the first three games of the season any better than 3-0. Sure, close wins against Georgia Tech and Indiana probably gave some of the Louisville coaching staff some gray hairs. Against the Yellow Jackets, the Cardinals had to mount a big comeback to claim an opening week ACC win. Following Saturday's game, Cam’Ron Kelly noted the adversity their team had faced in those close matchups and felt that it would better prepare his team moving forward.
Jack Plummer has been solid at quarterback in his reunion with Jeff Brohm and has utilized his legs more this season than ever before. After totaling 42 yards on the ground on eight carries, the super senior has already set a career high in season rushing yards and he picked up a couple of key third down conversions to extend Louisville drives. He was quick to admit that he’s no Lamar Jackson or Malik Cunningham but did say that his athleticism sometimes gets overlooked and his play on the field certainly proves that point.
The skill position players, many of them transfers, have shined in the early season. Jamari Thrash took the top of the Indiana defense on multiple occasions and finished with 4 catches for 159 yards and would have had even more if a holding penalty didn’t negate what would have been a 6th touchdown. The Cardinals emphasized the run game on Saturday and combined for 39 carries, 184 yards, and 2 touchdowns with 113 of those yards coming from Jawhar Jordan who ran the ball at a 6.3 yards per carry clip.
Heading into the season, Louisville was identified as a dark horse candidate in the ACC in part due to their favorable schedule. The Cardinals don’t face Florida State, Clemson, or North Carolina and there are two seemingly manageable games on the schedule ahead of a big showdown against Notre Dame. Louisville welcomes in Boston College next week, but overlook the Eagles at your own risk as Florida State nearly did on Saturday. A Friday night road trip to North Carolina State in Week 5 will likely represent the toughest challenge of the five September contests. So long as the offense maintains their impressive balance and the defense continues to be opportunistic, a 5-0 start is certainly in the “Cards”
What the loss means for the 1-2 Indiana Hoosiers
Considering that the Hoosiers were quite literally a foot and a half away from tying the game, the loss feels like a big missed opportunity especially with the daunting Big Ten East scheduling looming. Indiana showed marked improvement from the first half to the second half which should hopefully provide some momentum even in the midst of a disappointing loss. Tayven Jackson’s growing pains aren’t over at quarterback but he performed admirably and the Hoosier offense should benefit from stability at the position. The main concern on that side of the ball is the offense line, where depth was a concern entering the season and injuries have only added to issue. Indiana is averaging just 3.4 yards per carry on the ground and if you take the electric playmaker Jaylin Lucas out of the equation for a moment, that number falls even lower.
Lucas is an extremely versatile and shifty back and if Cam Camper can get back to full health after an ACL tear last season, the Hoosiers will have a solid one-two punch at the skill positions. Donovan McCulley and Omar Cooper Jr. have both netted over 100 yards receiving through the first three games (and consider that the passing attack was forgone against Ohio State in the opener). The defense clamped down on the Cardinals in the second half and the Hoosiers have surrounded only 17 points per game this season. That defense will need to remain strong while the offense continues to work on finding their rhythm (19.3 points per game).
The goal for this Indiana team is reaching a bowl game for the first time since 2020, but the loss against Louisville certainly hurts their chances. In that season, Tom Allen had the Hoosiers as high as #7 in the AP Poll and the Hoosiers ended with a 6-2 record. Since that time, Indiana is just 7-20 and it appears as though they will be fighting to stay out of last place in the extremely challenging and deep Big Ten East. The Hoosiers come back to Bloomington for their final tuneup of the season against Akron before the conference slate begins in earnest.