- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Lorenzo Mauldin trudged off the Papa John's Cardinal Stadium field on Friday night, his head down and with teammate Keith Towbridge's arm draped around him. Before he reached the team's locker room, Mauldin looked up and screamed a four-letter word into the night.
Louisville's players later tried their best to say everything could still work out this season, even after a 38-35 home loss to Central Florida. But Mauldin's primal yell more accurately summed up the feelings of Cardinals fans everywhere.
As a 21-point second-half lead evaporated, so too did all of No. 8 Louisville's dreams of an undefeated season and any outside shot at a national title. Stark reality: the supposed best team in school history isn't even the best team in the American Athletic Conference.
"When you're undefeated, you think about the big game and all that stuff," senior middle linebacker Preston Brown said. "But all that's out the window now with the conference we play in. Now, we've just got to win the conference and hopefully get to a BCS game."
The big questions surrounding the Cardinals this season revolved around their schedule, and that such a soft slate should be reflected in their national ranking. UCF -- a team that has also won at Penn State and lost by three points at home to South Carolina -- proved a perfectly powerful opponent and looks like a deserving Top 25 team in its own right.
"A lot of people don't recognize us as being a team that can compete on this level," UCF offensive lineman Joey Grant said. "I believe we just proved to everyone that we can."
Louisville will now need the Knights to lose twice just to have a chance to win the AAC and its automatic BCS bid. Last season, the Cardinals dropped back-to-back games in the old Big East -- including a home loss to UConn -- but still got enough help to make it to the Sugar Bowl, where they stunned Florida. Several players talked about repeating that path.
"We've been down this road before," Louisville coach Charlie Strong said.
Yet expectations for this team far exceeded simply fighting for an AAC title, and Louisville might end up wondering what might have been if not for a third-quarter collapse.
Freshman James Quick's one-handed scoop of a fumbled punt attempt and 30-yard touchdown dash put the Cardinals up 28-7 with 7:52 left in the quarter. The sellout homecoming crowd hopped. And then watched in horror as everything unraveled.
UCF's Blake Bortles completed a 32-yard third-down pass on the following drive to set up a Knights' touchdown. A Louisville fumble then led to another quick score. Then, a defensive stop and yet another score. The Knights had erased a three-touchdown deficit in a little more than seven minutes.
"Never, ever, ever give up," Knights head coach George O'Leary said afterward. "That's what we live on, and they knew that was coming. When they started jumping to [Louisville's] music, I knew we were in good shape."
A fourth-quarter field goal put Louisville behind in the second half for the first time this season. That's when Teddy Bridgewater showed his greatness, leading the offense on an 88-yard drive that was capped by Dominique Brown's 15-yard touchdown rumble. Bridgewater could hardly have played better; he completed 20 of his first 23 passes and finished 29-of-38 for 341 yards and two touchdowns.
For most of the season, though, Bridgewater hasn't gotten a lot of help from his running game, and that was the case again Friday. Dominique Brown ran for 54 yards on the Cardinals' touchdown drive to open the second half and later had that 15-yard score. Other than that, though, Louisville managed only 35 rushing yards. And Strong's strategy to rotate backs every series backfired, as he subbed in Senorise Perry after Brown had dominated that first third-quarter possession. Perry's fumble on his own 17 set up a Knights touchdown one play later.
But Strong was more upset with his defense than anything else. Bortles played every bit as well as Bridgewater, throwing for 250 yards and two touchdowns. He had time to scan the field, too, as Louisville failed to record a sack.
"We never got any pressure," Strong said. "You've got to create disruption and pressure. We had our blitzes called, we just didn't execute."
The defense saved the day last week in a slugfest against Rutgers but couldn't hold onto a 35-31 lead with three minutes to go. Bortles spearheaded a 75-yard march that ended on his game-winning 2-yard touchdown pass to Jeff Godfrey with 23 seconds left. Bortles faced no pressure on the throw, and Godfrey was wide open.
Preston Brown said Louisville played its base Cover-2 on that drive, hoping to force UCF into short passes and perhaps create a turnover. Instead, the Knights took what was there, all the way down the field.
"We changed our scheme a little bit, and we missed a lot of shots," Louisville safety Hakeem Smith said. "Pursuit was key, and we missed a lot of tackles."
Strong has tried to block out all the criticism surrounding the Cardinals' schedule this season and has repeatedly told his team that they are the best in the nation. He said that will continue to be the message going forward. Louisville only plays two more teams with winning records (Houston and Cincinnati) and should still finish with a sparkling record. Bridgewater insisted the team would move on and get ready for South Florida next week.
"You can't live in misery," he said. "You can't live in a loss. One loss doesn't determine the whole season."
There wasn't much else a team leader like Bridgewater could say on this night. Mauldin had already summed up the feeling of Cardinals fans everywhere.