HOUSTON — Louisville coach Bobby Petrino was blunt.
“We blew it,” he said.
Duke Catalon scored three touchdowns and Houston hurried and harassed Heisman favorite Lamar Jackson all night to propel the Cougars to a stunning 36-10 victory over the Cardinals on Thursday night that dashed the third-ranked team’s playoff hopes.
Louisville (9-2) entered the game ranked fifth in the College Football Playoff rankings, but was outdone by a Houston team that saw its own playoff hopes foiled by two losses to unranked teams after a 5-0 start.
“We lost,” Jackson said. “Can’t do nothing about it.”
The Cardinals were unhappy they weren’t ranked higher in this week’s CFP rankings after losses by several top teams last week, and some players thought they let that angst affect their play on Thursday.
“I think we let that get to us too much. I think we paid too much attention to the rankings instead of playing our game,” safety Dee Smith said. “We were just trying to do too much.”
Things went wrong quickly for the mistake-prone Cardinals when they fumbled the opening kickoff to Houston (9-2). Greg Ward threw his first touchdown pass on the next play to make it 7-0. Brandon Radcliff lost a fumble later in the first and Houston added a field goal on the ensuing drive to make it 10-0.
Jackson threw for 211 yards and a touchdown, but it didn’t come until the second half.
Houston then scored touchdowns on three straight possessions in the second quarter to push the lead to 31-0 at halftime. Catalon caught a touchdown pass, ran for another score and Houston got the third score in that span on a 50-yard pass by receiver Linell Bonner after a lateral.
“We were banged up. We were beat up. We were tired. We were exhausted in the month of October,” Houston coach Tom Herman said. “That’s not an excuse. That’s reality. And our guys fought through it and they fought through that adversity and they never wavered … and when you get the band back together and you get everybody healthy and everybody fresh and everybody doing their job … we can play with anybody in the country. And we proved that again tonight.”
The Cougars were in Jackson’s face constantly, sacking him a season-high 11 times and keeping him from hurting them with his feet. He ran for a season-low 33 yards after piling up 338 yards rushing combined in the last two games.
After Jackson was sacked for the 10th time he threw up his hands and two of his lineman looked to be yelling at each other about who was to blame for his latest takedown.
But the Cougars weren’t done getting after him just yet. On the next possession he threw the ball away while under heavy pressure from Tyus Bowser and was flagged for intentional grounding, giving the Cougars a safety.
Petrino said he saw frustration build in Jackson as the sacks piled up.
“Oh yeah, there was frustration there,” he said. “There was frustration on the protection and frustration on himself — missing a few throws. That’s one of the things on the sideline there definitely was frustration and it grew.”
Ward threw for 233 yards and two touchdowns to help the Cougars to the victory that left Cougar fans storming the field to celebrate.