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Ragone expects 'chess match' with Herd 'D'

by Rob Peirce

SPORTS WRITER

Solving Marshall's defense might not be rocket science, but Louisville quarterback Dave Ragone expects to use his brain as much as his arm in the GMAC Bowl.

The Cardinals (7-5) meet the Thundering Herd (10-2) at 8 p.m. Wednesday from Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Ala. The game can be seen on ESPN2.

Last year's GMAC bowl was a 64-61 double overtime victory, and with Ragone going against Marshall quarterback Byron Leftwich, this year's game promises to be another shootout. But Ragone must deal with an ever-improving Herd defense. He compares it to such Conference USA teams as TCU or Southern Mississippi.

"It's kind of a chess match," Ragone said. "It's definitely going to test my mental capacity. They have a lot of confidence in their corners (Roberto Terrell and Yancey Satterwhite), and they should. Speed kills -- you can't teach that."

The Cardinals will have to do without their leading receiver, Damien Dorsey. Dorsey is no longer with the team, but coach John L. Smith wouldn't say if he quit or was thrown off the team.

Dorsey was Louisville's leading receiver with 52 catches for 753 yards. He led Conference USA with seven touchdown receptions. He also had a 15.4 punt-return average, which ranked No. 7 in the country. He ran back an 81-yard punt for a touchdown against Army.

Donta Spillman and Antoine Harris both average more than 17 yards a catch. Four other receivers average at least 10 yards a catch. Henry Miller leads the Louisville running game with 595 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Marshall defensive back Chris Crocker sees a lot of similarities between the two offenses in general and Ragone and Leftwich in particular.

"He's much like Byron," Crocker said. "He has a lot of his intangibles. We're definitely going to come after him, just like any other team. He hasn't been able to sit in the pocket and pick people apart. But he'll play in the NFL. Defensive backs love to play against a quarterback like that."

The obvious weak spot for Louisville is the offensive line. For the first time this season, the same five at the top of the depth chart will play together at the same time. Injuries have plagued the Cardinal front, and they've heard about it.

"You plug in one hole, you open up another," he said. "Sometimes, the bandage just isn't big enough. But I'm proud of my offensive line. They've taken a beating -- not just physically and mentally, with headlines and media."

At least one play the offensive line helped deliver was in overtime against then-No. 4 Florida State. Overtime lasted two plays before Louisville delivered the 26-20 victory at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium in a steady downpour lasting the entire game.

Louisville's Anthony Floyd intercepted a Chris Rix pass near the goal line on the first play, and Miller followed by breaking off a 25-yard touchdown run.

"It was magical," Smith said. "That's the only way to describe it. We played as a football team. I've never played in a game where it rained so hard the entire game."

But the season still didn't meet Smith's expectations. He views the 27-10 loss to conclude the regular season at Houston as a blown opportunity. Had the Cardinals won, they would have shared the C-USA title after winning it the last two years.

In 2000 and 2001, Louisville went to the Liberty Bowl, a New Year's Eve game. Last year, the Cardinals claimed their first bowl victory since 1993 by beating BYU.

"We're just happy to be in a bowl in any year," Smith said. "And your fans should be happy as well."

It's Smith's fifth year at Louisville's helm, and he's taken the team to five straight bowl appearances. The first one was a 48-29 loss to Marshall in the 1998 Motor City Bowl.

Sports writer Rob Peirce can be reached at 626-1444 or by e-mail at rpeirce@exponent-telegram.com.