LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - For the longest time on this chilly October night, it looked as if the biggest game ever played in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium had been scripted by the University of Louisville drama school.
The Cardinals were not only holding their own against unbeaten defending national champion Florida State; they were actually dominating the Seminoles and their infamous quarterback, Jameis Winston, the most recent winner of the Heisman Trophy.
Up in Cardinal athletics director Tom Jurich's suite, Muhammad Ali, his body quivering from the ravages of Parkinson's Disease, watched behind a pair of dark sunglasses. Other celebrities came and went – C.C. Sabathia, Darrell Griffith, Kirk Herbstreit, Deion Branch, to mention a few – but everybody takes a back seat when Ali is in the house.
Since the game was played on the 40th anniversary of the historic "Rumble in the Jungle" – Ali's 1974 win over George Foreman in Zaire – boxing analogies were inevitable. But the one that won out was Florida State's imitation of the "Rope-a-Dope" strategy by which Ali leaned on the ropes, taking Foreman's best shots until Foreman punched himself silly and became a sitting duck for Ali's late flurry of punches.
So it was with Florida State against UofL. The Cards jumped out to a 21-0 lead. They intercepted two of Winston's passes in the first half and opened the second half by pilfering a third. They seemed to be stunned and reeling, just as Ali had looked in Africa 40 years ago.
But then they came off the ropes and went on the attack.
Final score: Florida State 42, U of L 31.
In the second half, Winston showed why Florida State has gone to extraordinary lengths to cover up, excuse, rationalize and ignore a series of off-the-field transgressions that range from something as serious as rape allegations to something as dumb as stealing crab legs from a grocery store.
If he doesn't have the character that should be requisite for a Heisman winner, he certainly has the talent. In the second half, behind Winston's passing and the running of freshman Dalvin Cook, Florida State shredded UofL's defense for 374 yards. Winston threw TD passes of 68, 47 and 35 yards (he had 401 passing yards for the night), and Cook ripped off scoring runs of 40 and 38 yards.
A Cardinal defense that entered the game ranked No. 1 in the nation stood starkly exposed. Tackles were missed and receivers left wide open. On one Florida State touchdown, two Louisville defenders ran into each other. The Seminoles scored quickly and they scored often.
Unfortunately for UofL, the defensive collapse came on a night when the much-maligned offense acquitted itself well. Never mind that the Cards were a miserable 1-for-11 on third-down conversions. Quarterback Will Gardner threw for 330 yards and a touchdown, running back Michael Dyer gained 134 yards and brilliant receiver DeVante Parker had eight catches for 214 yards.
Late in the game, after Florida State had taken its fist lead, the offense pulled itself together for a scoring drive that gave the Cards a 31-28 lead with 9:20 remaining. When the offense got the ball back with 3:16 remaining on their own 12-yard line, the challenge was to maintain possession and eat up the clock. Instead, the Cards went three-and-out, thanks in no small part to a crucial offside penalty by a freshman lineman.
The ensuing punt was short, giving the Seminoles a first down on the UofL 38-yard-line. On the first play from scrimmage, Cook took off around right end and pranced through the weary defense for the knockout TD that completed the Rope-a-Dope comeback.
Somebody should frame the first-half stat sheet and give it to UofL Coach Bobby Petrino. It's a Picasso. Except for a late Florida State touchdown that proved to be a precursor of the second half, everything was in Louisville's favor. But the script was too good to last. In the second half, the Seminoles shredded, mutilated and spindled it. They replaced it with their script, the one they used for comeback wins against Auburn in last season's BCS title game and against Notre Dame a few weeks ago in Tallahassee.
Both teams came away with something. The Seminoles ran their winning streak to 24 and kept alive their hopes for a repeat national championship. The Cards lost the opportunity to get their first victory ever against a team ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation, but they earned a lot of credibility, playing well on as big a stage as any U of L team has ever seen – a capacity crowd in Papa John's and a huge ESPN national TV audience.
It's too bad, in a way, that Winston left Louisville without getting a chance to meet Ali. After all, they had something in common. On the 40th anniversary of Ali's "Rope-a-Dope" against Foreman, Winston pulled the same stunt against UofL. A champ does whatever it takes to win.
"We've been there before," Winston said. "Being down is nothing when you've got heart and you persevere. Personally, we play better when we're down. Honestly."
Billy Reed is a longtime sportswriter who contributes occasional sports columns to WAVE3.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BillyReedSays.