MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – A Big East championship that West Virginia was so confident of winning at the beginning of the season is now slipping away.
Special teams gaffes, turnovers and an inability to stop Louisville inside the red zone proved costly in No. 24 West Virginia's 38-35 loss to the Cardinals on Saturday.
A crowd of 57,287 watched West Virginia (6-3, 2-2 Big East) lose at home for the second time this season — the first time that's happened since 2003.
"Words can't explain it," said West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith. "It's just a total team loss. We obviously didn't make enough plays on offense to win the game and that's what hurts the most."
The mood was expectedly subdued in West Virginia's locker room afterward, but the players refused to concede the season is lost.
West Virginia will likely need to win its final three games against Cincinnati, Pitt and South Florida and get some help to have a shot at the league's BCS berth.
"We know that in this league anything can happen for the most part," said wide receiver Stedman Bailey. "We just have to work hard and move forward."
Not expected to be a factor in the Big East, the surprising Cardinals (5-4, 3-1) used their highest scoring output of the season behind freshman quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to win their third straight.
"I was not surprised at all to come into this venue and for us to go and play well," said Louisville coach Charlie Strong. "We knew we had to play well. We didn't come here to lose or to play it tight. We came in here to win. We have overcome adversity all year long."
In the visitors' locker room, the entire Louisville team was heard singing John Denver's "Country Roads" — West Virginia's unofficial theme song.
Louisville also got a payback of sorts after being overlooked in the recent Big 12 expansion sweepstakes, a bid that went to the Mountaineers.
"Our team wasn't thinking about that," Strong said. "We were just thinking about going on the road and winning a game."
And keeping up in a tight conference race.
Louisville had entered the weekend in a three-way tie for second place behind Cincinnati, which played at Pittsburgh on Saturday night. The Cardinals, who fell at Cincinnati during a three-game losing streak in October, still have some work left with a home game against Pitt and at Connecticut and South Florida.
Smith threw for 410 yards and three scores but couldn't bring the Mountaineers back from 10 points down in the fourth quarter.
"We're definitely not doing what it takes to win," Smith said.
Despite being outgained 533-351, Louisville's offense found the end zone four times after failing on half its red-zone trips all season.
Three different backs scored rushing touchdowns for Louisville, which broke a four-game losing streak in the series.
At times it looked as though the Cardinals had the conference's best offense — not West Virginia, which had trouble at times against the league's No. 1 defense. And the Mountaineers' special teams had another awful day.
Tyler Bitancurt missed one field goal try and had another short one blocked by Adrian Bushell on the first play of the fourth quarter. Andrew Johnson picked up the loose ball and went 82 yards to put the Cardinals ahead 31-21.
"Not a very hard one to figure out," said West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen. "You lose the turnover battle, you go 0-2 on field goals, that gets you beat."
Smith, who completed 31 of 44 passes but was sacked three times and on one series fumbled the ball away near midfield. He made up for it on the ensuing 96-yard drive with a 46-yard pass to Ivan McCartney that set up Shawne Alston's 8-yard scoring run with 9 minutes left.
But Louisville ran 7 minutes off the clock on a 76-yard drive that included Dominique Brown's 2-yard run on fourth-and-1 at the West Virginia 43.
"Coach looked at me and said 'Dominique, can you do this for us?' and I said, 'I got this coach,'" Brown said.
Brown capped the drive with a 3-yard TD run for a 38-28 lead.
West Virginia wide receiver Tavon Austin said that drive was the dagger for the Mountaineers.
"You've got to give it up to Louisville," Austin said. "They protected the ball and they did a good job of moving the chains. Our hats are off to them. They played a good game."
Bailey, who caught eight passes for 118 yards but had two critical drops, scored on a 1-yard pass from Smith with a minute left. But Louisville recovered the ensuing onside kick and ran out the clock.
Bridgewater, making his sixth start, completed 21 of 27 passes for a season-high 246 yards. He provided a spark just before halftime after an 11-yard punt by West Virginia freshman Michael Molinari. Bridgewater went 5 of 6 on the drive, completing a left-handed shovel pass under pressure before hitting Eli Rogers from 4 yards out to tie the game at 21.
West Virginia went scoreless in the third quarter for the first time all season. Bitancurt missed a 33-yard field goal try after Najee Goode intercepted Bridgewater's first pass of the second half.
A fumble by freshman Andrew Buie at the West Virginia 15 set up Chris Philpott's 39-yard field goal to put Louisville ahead entering the fourth.