LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Miami's offense converted just one of 13 third-down opportunities and didn't fully capitalize on two takeaways near Louisville's end zone.
Add in a special teams lapse, and the result was a 31-13 loss on Monday night.
Despite two fumble recoveries inside the Louisville 10, the Hurricanes mustered only a 24-yard field goal by Matt Goudis. After taking a 10-7 lead shortly before halftime, they allowed Corvin Lamb's 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown that put Louisville ahead for good.
Those breakdowns bothered Miami coach Al Golden the most.
“The defense got us the ball twice within the 10,” Golden said. “We didn't convert there. We had an illegal man down the field on the play to Duke (Johnson) that gets us inside the 5, and they return a kick. It's tough to overcome those errors.”
It was even tougher considering some followed Louisville mistakes.
After Brad Kaaya's touchdown pass tied the game at 7 early in the second quarter, Miami defensive end Anthony Chickillo sacked Louisville's Will Gardner on the first play of the ensuing drive, forcing a fumble that linebacker Thurston Armbrister recovered at the Louisville 7.
With a clear scoring opportunity in hand, Miami gave the ball right back on the next play as Cardinals linebacker Keith Kelsey grabbed Stacy Coley's fumble of Kaaya's backward pass and raced to the end zone for an apparent touchdown.
Officials reviewed the play and awarded Louisville the ball but ruled the play dead at the 13. Gardner coughed up another ball deep in his own end early in the third quarter, but Louisville's defense held up again and limited the 'Canes to a second 24-yard field goal.
“Anytime you force a turnover, it's a big opportunity,” Chickillo said. “But when you get it in the red zone, you are thinking you're going to get points out of it. We didn't get that done.”
The defeat spoiled the debut of Kaaya, just the second true freshman quarterback to start a Miami opener in 35 years. He finished 17 of 29 for 174 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions.
“We did not do a good enough job protecting a first-start quarterback. Period,” Golden said.
Miami missed on its first nine third-down chances before Kaaya connected with tight end Clive Walford for a 5-yard gain late in the third quarter. It was the Hurricanes' only conversion, and any chance for momentum was negated one play later when James Sample intercepted Kaaya to set up a Louisville field goal that put the Cardinals up 24-13 with 13:11 remaining.
Miami looked poised to score on the next possession when Kaaya found Johnson behind the Louisville secondary with a pass to the Louisville 3, but the play was nullified when guard Daniel Isidora was illegally downfield.
Kaaya was sacked two plays later, and Miami failed to convert on fourth and 4 when Louisville safety Terell Floyd broke up a pass intended for Coley.
It was that kind of night for the Hurricanes, who were outgained 336-244.
Dominique Brown's 15-yard touchdown run in the third quarter and Gerald Christian's 10-yard TD catch late in the fourth backed Louisville's big defensive performance and carried the Cardinals to a win in their Atlantic Coast Conference debut.
Johnson gained 90 yards on 20 carries, but the preseason first team all-ACC selection couldn't get the key yards when needed. Containing him was one of Louisville's priorities.
“Our players really did a nice job of understanding the plan and being gap-sound and tackling well,” Petrino said. “You always worry about how you're going to tackle in the first game, but they went out and tackled really well.”