With each carry, Dominique Brown showed a hard-charging aggression that defenders were powerless to stop.
Most important was that he showed that talent and durability when Louisville needed them most.
Brown ran for a career-high 137 yards and two touchdowns, including the go-ahead score in the third quarter, and No. 19 Louisville held on to beat Houston 20-13 on Saturday night.
Listless on both sides of the ball and trailing 13-10 at halftime, Louisville turned to Brown, who carried 11 times in the third quarter for 50 yards and a 3-yard touchdown. He finished with 27 carries.
"My hat's off to the offensive line," Brown said. "The tight ends and receivers did a great job of springing me for the long runs.
"When a running back gets the momentum, you got to keep running him."
Louisville's defense meanwhile awakened to hold the Cougars (7-3, 4-2 American Athletic Conference) to 41 second-half yards and help the Cardinals (9-1, 5-1 American Athletic Conference) win their third straight game and stay within reach of first-place Central Florida.
Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater completed 19-of-29 passes for 209 yards but had his streak of 21 games with a touchdown pass end at 21. DeVante Parker had four receptions for 72 yards, including a 39-yarder that set up Brown's second TD run.
John Wallace kicked field goals of 37 and 39 yards for the Cardinals, who outgained the Cougars 332-195 and just 15 on the ground.
"At halftime we made an adjustment to stop the run," linebacker James Burgess said. "There wasn't much they could do once we stopped the run."
Brown had been building toward his career game in recent weeks, posting his first 100-yard game at South Florida last month to become the primary back that Louisville has sought all season after using a rotation that included Senorise Perry and former Auburn star Michael Dyer.
Against Houston, Brown started both halves with game-changing plays.
After capping Louisville's first drive with a 13-yard touchdown run, the junior provided a 17-13 lead with his second TD run on the opening possession of the second half, just the spark that the Cardinals needed following a lethargic second quarter. Louisville held the ball for 12:24 in the period, and Houston never recovered.
"If we're going to hold an opponent to 20 points, we feel like we're in a good chance to win the football game with what we do offensively," Houston coach Tony Levine said. "I felt like we had opportunities, we had possessions offensively to get that done, and we just didn't."
Brown's second TD led to frustration for Houston safety Adrian McDonald, who was ejected for punching Louisville offensive lineman Kamran Joyer several times on the play.
The game marked Louisville's first Saturday night contest in five years and its first meeting against Houston since a 65-27 victory in 2004 — their second straight 60-point performance against the Cougars.
Houston looked poised to jump on the Cardinals right away when Demarcus Ayers returned the opening kickoff 61 yards with the help of five missed tackles, and the Cougars moved 11 yards for a first down at the Louisville 28. After three straight incompletions, they gambled on fourth down instead of kicking a field goal into the wind, but John O'Korn's slant pass to Xavier Maxwell came up 5 yards short.
Brown's running quickly got the Cardinals on the board, carrying seven times for 44 yards, including the touchdown run off left tackle. Wallace's first field goal two drives later put Louisville up 10-0.
Houston needed just two drives to tie the game, driving 48 yards for Kyle Bullard's 46-yard field goal and 60 yards ending in Kenneth Farrow's 4-yard run with 6:35 left before halftime. Those drives were telling as the Cougars' no-huddle offense seemed to confuse the Cardinals' defense, which struggled to keep up.
Defensively, Houston succeeded in pressuring Bridgewater, sacking him twice and keeping him on the run at other times.
Two key plays helped the Cougars take a 13-10 lead. The first was Michaelee Harris' muffed punt recovered at the Louisville 39 by Trevon Stewart, who entered leading the nation with eight turnovers.
Louisville appeared to escape damage when Hakeem Smith intercepted O'Korn's tipped pass at the 15 and returned it to the 35. But Cardinals defensive end Lorenzo Mauldin was penalized for roughing O'Korn, wiping out the turnover and setting up first down at the 24 and leading to Bullard's 22-yard field goal with 25 seconds left in the half.
The Cardinals quickly snatched the momentum away from the Cougars with Brown leading the way.
"We got kind of complacent and got comfortable," Louisville coach Charlie Strong said of the first half. "Offensively, we didn't do a good job of continuing to move the football...
"I told (Brown) we were going to ride him, and that's what you like to see happen."