UC lost to No. 16 Louisville 34-31 in overtime in one of the great games in the Keg of Nails rivalry, but they can't help but realize how close they were to a breakthrough victory.
LOUISVILLE -- Within a Teddy Bridgewater heave of where madness and exhilaration sprinted up and down the hashmarks, Bearcats linebacker Greg Blair sat in a chair near the visitor locker room with his hands folded and shook his head.
On a night his talent and value were beamed across the country, the reality felt as unavoidable as the cold, wet, windy conditions Friday night inside Papa Johns Cardinal Stadium.
"We just hate losing to these dudes," Blair said. "Anybody but these dudes."
Blair and the string of Bearcats who spoke with the media didn't show depression of the 34-31 overtime loss to those dudes of rival Louisville as Friday gave way to Saturday morning. Disappointment, hurt, frustration. Yes, yes and yes. But all with a hint of optimism.
If any reality proved clear during the insanity of the final minutes Friday, resiliency of these players moving forward won't be a problem. For every haymaker thrown by the I-65 Golden Boy wearing No. 5, the red and black rose off the FieldTurf with a resounding answer.
When Louisville rode early momentum, Maalik Bomar stole it with his first career interception. George Winn repeatedly bulldozed it along with the Bearcats identity into the Cardinals white helmets.
Ralph David Abernathy IV established himself as a primary weapon few teams can see, much less answer.
And with 1:48 remaining and the Bearcats needing 59 yards on a night the grind of the running game carried the day, Munchie Legaux needed but three plays before Legaux to Julian re-entered the UC lexicon.
On a night the Bearcats established their gameplan and showed the type of resiliency familiar of programs who've won three of the last four Big East championships, they were left to digest 34-31.
One field goal, one stop, one throw, one hold, one drop. Any one play and black jerseys would have flooded the field, Keg of Nails aloft, and seized the driver's seat in the Big East.
In a game for the ages in this rivalry the loss comes not for lack of effort, not for lack of savvy, not for lack of excitement. No, instead, for lack of one more play.
"You always got to have faith that we are going to make that play to win the game," said Blair, who finished with 19 tackles and now has 33 in the last two games. "That was a great game, man, we should have came up with the win but sometimes it just happen that way."
Indeed, sometimes it does.
Nobody would leave the Pizza Palace believing either team didn't belong. The combination of explosion and power that churned out 196 yards on 41 carries Friday exposed a primary weapon that could undeniably still win a Big East championship.
Despite Bridgewater growing his own Louisville legacy, the UC defense behind Blair, Maalik Bomar and dealing with the loss of their best player in Walter Stewart carried the Bearcats to a 10-point advantage in the second half that nearly proved enough.
In the end, it wasn't.
"We knew we fought," Bomar said. "We fought hard. But a loss is a loss and a win is a win. We're hurting right now and got some things to think about on the ride back."
Each player will rewind the play in his mind that he could have altered the final score. Any one of them would have been enough.
Legaux knows his after finishing 13 of 28 for 157 yards and three interceptions while rushing for a touchdown for the fourth straight game.
"A bigger guy like Travis (Kelce) I try to give him a chance to go up and make the play with a defender in his face," Legaux said of his third-down interception in overtime. "The cornerback did a great job of reacting and made a play on the ball. That's one of the plays you wish you could have back, but hey, you got to live and die with it."
Inevitably, the Bearcats died. That's the cold-hearted nature of sports. On a night where so much goes right for Legaux and all the Bearcats and victory feels deserved, it doesn't necessarily play out that way.
"They are a resilient group of kids," Butch Jones said. "That is a hurting locker room right now. As a coach they laid it on the line. They gave us everything they had. We'll bounce back ... I love our kids and I think they showed true character tonight."
UC will bounce back. They showed too much talent Friday night not to.
In the moments following John Wallace's 30-yard field goal, however, none of the bright future trumped the reality.
"That's what it was," Blair said, shaking his head one last time. "Coach Jones always tell us it's going to come down to a handful of plays. They made their play. We didn't. Back to the drawing boards."
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