11:00 AM ET, November 28, 2003
Nippert Stadium, Cincinnati, OH
CINCINNATI (AP) -- Coach Bobby Petrino had a much easier time explaining this one.
Stefan LeFors threw a 54-yard touchdown pass with 70 seconds remaining Friday, giving Louisville a 43-40 victory over Cincinnati that represented a milestone for its embattled coach.
Louisville (9-3, 5-3 Conference USA) blew a 21-point lead before rallying for a victory that enhanced its bid for a sixth consecutive bowl appearance. The win also made Petrino the first Louisville coach to win nine games in his first season.
Petrino put the school in the national spotlight on Wednesday, when he acknowledged a secret meeting with Auburn officials about their head coaching job. He conceded he "probably made a mistake" by initially denying that he had contact with Auburn.
Petrino, who has four years left on his contract, was delighted to be able to explain the dramatic comeback instead of his awkward interview with Auburn.
"That's all I'm going to talk about, and that's how happy I am to talk about it," Petrino said.
Auburn made up its mind to keep coach Tommy Tuberville soon after the talks with Petrino were revealed, sparing Louisville players from a prolonged uncertainty.
"A couple of guys talked about it during the week, but it wasn't a big ordeal," LeFors said. "Every time you'd walk in the locker room and expect there to be talk about it, but there really wasn't. We're glad he's staying."
LeFors made the biggest play in a game full of them. He avoided the rush and threw a long pass to J.R. Russell, who slipped away from cornerback Daven Holly to finish the decisive 54-yard play.
Cincinnati had a last chance, but Gino Guidugli's desperation pass from midfield went out of bounds as time ran out.
"I thought they were going to come down and put a field goal on the board and we were going to overtime," said LeFors, who was 16-of-27 for 211 yards and two touchdowns, along with a 69-yard touchdown run.
Cincinnati (5-7, 2-6) ended its first losing season in four years with a coach under fire. School officials have declined to discuss the future of Rick Minter, who has been targeted by disgruntled fans. A banner from the upper deck of the stadium said, "Minter Please Step Down."
"I'll be here until someone tells me different," said Minter, who has been at Cincinnati for 10 years. "They fire coaches for not winning. They fire coaches who are winning. That's how insane this business is."
Only 11,993 fans -- slightly more than one-third of the stadium's capacity -- showed up on a cold, snowy afternoon to see the Bearcats rally from a 28-7 second-quarter deficit.
Chris Manfredini tied the school record with four field goals, and Kyle Koester's second touchdown run put Cincinnati ahead 40-35 with 2:20 left. Guidugli completed 20 of 40 passes for 336 yards, but was sacked and threw three incompletions at the end of the final drive.
"It's been a tough year," said Guidugli, who was unusually downcast.
One of the nation's top offenses needed a series of big plays to pull it out. In addition to LeFors' 69-yard run and his decisive 54-yard pass, Michael Bush ran 81 yards for a touchdown off a fake reverse.
Linebacker Brandon Johnson also returned a fumble 20 yards for a touchdown that put Louisville ahead 28-7 in the second quarter.
Louisville rolled up 526 yards on offense, one week after it set a school record with 779 yards in a 66-45 win over Houston. The Cardinals lost three fumbles, opening the way for Cincinnati's comeback.