Although the score and statistics don't show it, Louisville's defense redeemed itself to a degree Saturday afternoon against Boston College.
But an offense that had shown signs of life recently staggered back into hibernation and the special teams unit contributed several costly breakdowns.
So the result was the same as it has been for nearly a month. On a gray day in sparsely-populated Alumni Stadium in Chestnut Hill, Mass., BC (5-2, 2-1 ACC) handed U of L (2-5, 0-4) its fourth consecutive loss, 38-20, further dimming the Cardinals' hopes for a late-season turnaround and its ninth straight bowl trip.
The sun finally emerged late in the game, but the black cloud that has been hovering over the Cards will follow them into a much-needed bye week before they return to action against Wake Forest (3-3, 0-2) on Oct. 27 in Cardinal Stadium. That's a crucial matchup that arguably represents the only realistically winnable game on their remaining schedule, which includes three Top-25 teams and a trip to Syracuse (4-2, 1-2).
"We've got a lot of work to do," said U of L coach Bobby Petrino, as if that isn't painfully obvious, and has been for a long time. "We've got to figure out how we're going to sustain our concentration and focus and be able to play the game of football for four quarters."
The setback marks Louisville's first four-game losing streak since Steve Kragthorpe's team dropped five straight at the end of the 2008 season to Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, West Virginia and Rutgers.
"Frustrating," was Petrino's one-word description on his post-game radio show.
For much of the day, U of L's defense, which was assaulted for 542 yards rushing in Georgia Tech's 66-31 rout a week ago, did its part to help end the misery. It generated a pair of back-to-back turnovers that enabled the Cards to recover from an awful start and eventually take a brief 20-14 lead in the second quarter.
The ringleaders of the defense were a pair of sophomore linebackers - C.J. Avery, whose 15 tackles were the most by a Louisville player in three years, and Dorian Etheridge, who had 11 stops.
But the offense was never really in synch, got even worse in the second half and didn't score again. Meanwhile, U of L's special teams were hit with a blocked punt for a touchdown, a blocked extra point and a 34-yard punt return that put the defense in a hole.
The Cards averaged only 3.2 yards per play, the lowest ever for a Louisville team under Petrino, including 0.6 yards per play in the fourth quarter and 2.7 in the second half. They managed just 47 yards rushing on 32 carries, recorded a mere 217 yards total offense, were 4-of-16 on third down conversions and surrendered seven sacks for minus 43 yards.
The unit stopped BC on a 4th-and-1 from the UofL 5-yard line after the long punt return, but that proved to be its last hurrah. When the defense wore down from the physical Eagles' constant pounding with their up-tempo power running attack, the hosts took control and dominated the fourth quarter. In all, BC ran 83 plays to UofL's 67, including 33-to-14 in the third quarter and the first 4 1/2 minutes of the fourth.
Most of them were punishing runs by freshman David Bailey and former wide receiver Ben Glines, who combined to make sure BC didn't miss All-American halfback and 2017 ACC Rookie of the Year AJ Dillon, who was sidelined for the second straight game with a sprained ankle. Glines started and gained 107 yards on 17 carries, including a 2-yard touchdown. Bailey later shared the spot and became a workhorse in the second half, at one point carrying the ball seven times in a row.
"Both of our tailbacks had over 100 yards each and that's a compliment to our line," BC quarterback Anthony Brown said. "They were really blocking today. Louisville's defensive line is big, they're physical, they played fast. I guess we were on today and we needed to be. Our running backs ran great, they saw the holes and it turned out well."
Brown complemented the destructive duo with his play-action passes, completing 16-of-22 for 179 yards and a touchdown.
It took UofL only six minutes to fall behind 14-0 after giving the Eagles the ball on its own 45- and 47-yard line with a minus two yards on its first two drives.
"We started slow again, which is a terrible, terrible thing," Petrino said. "It really wasn't anything they did. It was just our offense."
The Cards got back into the game by scoring 20 answered points, with fumble recoveries at the BC six by Etheridge and at the 40 (after a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty) by Quen Head leading to 13 points on short TD runs by Malik Cunningham and Hassan Hall. Then UofL put together its only long scoring drive of the afternoon, moving 73 yards in nine plays capped by Juwon Pass's 3-yard run to take a 20-14 lead.
But BC surged ahead to stay by blocking a punt and recovering in the end zone, then adding a field goal for a 24-20 halftime advantage.
"We gave up a blocked punt for a touchdown, which we practiced (against) all week," Petrino said. "We knew they would be coming. And then we don't get it blocked and we didn't get the ball out right."
Still, the Cards remained within striking distance through a scoreless third quarter. But their defense was getting weary and Bailey bulled in from the one to end a 13-play, 93-yard drive to make it 31-20 midway through the final quarter before the hosts added another TD with 3:34 remaining.
"We did a decent job on defense," Petrino said. "I feel like the defense competed hard and played hard, had a couple of big plays, the turnovers early, a couple of big fourth down stops. But we didn't respond properly offensively."
Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college basketball and football for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at email@example.com.