Dec. 31, 2004
By TERESA M. WALKER
AP Sports Writer
MEMPHIS, Tenn. - In the highest scoring Liberty Bowl ever, it was a defensive play by Louisville that ended Boise State's 22-game winning streak.
Louisville safety Kerry Rhodes intercepted a pass in the end zone as time expired to preserve No. 7 Louisville's 44-40 victory over 10th-ranked Boise State on Friday.
"It's a great way to end it," Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said. "A national audience, two teams that were supposed to score over 84 points. I think we hit it right on the top."
Now Louisville will enter the Big East Conference in grand style after handing Boise State its first loss since September 2003 in a game that was the most important in school history for both programs.
"This was big for us," Boise State receiver Chris Carr said. "We don't see ourselves as a non-BCS school or a little school. We see ourselves on the same level as any school we play.
"We wanted to come out here and prove to everybody that we're not a team in the WAC that's not very good, and we just beat up on little teams."
Eric Shelton scored on the go-ahead touchdown on a 1-yard run with 6:48 left. Stefan LeFors threw two touchdowns and ran for a third as the Cardinals (11-1), who have never finished ranked higher than 13th, matched a school record for victories in a season.
The Cardinals won their third Liberty Bowl in their final appearance as a Conference USA team.
The Broncos (11-1) had one last chance to win after Art Carmody's 19-yard field goal with 1:10 left put Louisville up four.
Quarterback Jared Zabransky drove the Broncos to the Louisville 30 before his final pass into the end zone as time expired was intercepted by Rhodes. He more than atoned for his missed interception opportunity in a 41-38 loss on Oct. 14 to then-No. 3 Miami.
"God blessed me to put me in position to make the play, and I made the play," Rhodes said.
LeFors said the Cardinals had no problems focusing on the task at hand with all the rumors about Petrino's future.
"We wanted to play the game between the lines and let all that other talk, just put it in the back of your minds and not even worry about it," LeFors said.
Everyone expected a high-scoring game in a bowl pairing the nation's top two offenses, and the teams didn't disappoint as they swapped the lead five times. The 84 combined points topped the 80 points by Colorado and Alabama in 1969 and was one of a handful of records set.
Louisville won only for the second time in seven bowls despite a season-high four turnovers. The Cardinals rolled up 564 yards, topping 500 yards for the ninth time this season.
LeFors was 18-of-26 for 193 yards and ran 12 times for 76 yards. The Cardinals rushed for 329 yards against a defense that had been the nation's fourth-best against the run.
"He, particularly running the football, killed us," Boise State coach Dan Hawkins said of LeFors. "That doesn't mean he didn't make some throws because he obviously did. But I think where he made some big plays, huge plays, was running the football. On key downs and in key situations, he really sparked them."
This was the biggest game in school history for Boise State, a program that moved up to Division I-A in 1996. The Broncos, who played their first three bowls on their home field known for its blue turf, thought they could keep up with an offense that had trailed only Louisville for most yards and points.
But the Broncos, who lost 12 starters from their 2003 squad, finished with 284 yards offense, well below their 511.6-yard average.
The teams still rewrote the Liberty Bowl record book.
They combined for the most points in the first quarter with 24, and their 52 points were the most for the first half.
Boise State kicker Tyler Jones had a record 48-yard field goal on the Broncos' first drive, and Broncos linebacker Andy Avalos had a 92-yard interception return off LeFors in the first quarter that bested the 79-yarder by Michael Jordan of Tulane in 1998.
Boise State led as much as 34-21 early in the third quarter after scoring 24 straight points.
The Cardinals settled down when LeFors drove them on an 81-play drive in eight plays, which he capped with a 14-yard TD toss to J.R. Russell. LeFors then gave Louisville the lead back at 35-34 when he ran in from a yard out with 2:17 left in the third.
Boise State last led at 40-35 when Jon Helmandollar plunged in from 2 yards with 10:51 left.
The Liberty Bowl is sponsored by AutoZone.