LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The same word rang in the ears of every Louisville player throughout the offseason.
Finish. Finish. Finish.
The Cardinals couldn't forget how they let a 17-point, fourth-quarter lead slip away in a 46-44 triple overtime loss to West Virginia last year. Their coaches wouldn't allow it.
"As tiring as it got, we deserved it," Louisville center Eric Wood said. "Last year we let teams beat us at the end. That was our focus this year. Finish the ballgame."
One year later, Louisville finally took care of some unfinished business.
Brian Brohm went 19-of-26 for 354 yards Thursday as the fifth-ranked Cardinals outlasted No. 3 West Virginia 44-34 to win one of the most anticipated games in Big East history.
The victory gave Louisville some sense of closure while also allowing the Cardinals to state their case for an appearance in the national championship game.
Louisville (8-0, 3-0 Big East) won't know exactly where it stands in the national title sweepstakes until the Bowl Championship Series standings are released Sunday, but the Cardinals likely will inherit West Virginia's No. 3 spot.
The Cardinals certainly possess the resolve of a champion.
They didn't stagger when Steve Slaton – the same guy who tied a Big East record with six touchdowns in last year's game – burst through a seam for a 42-yard score in the first quarter.
Nor did they get frustrated when red-zone failures caused them to settle for three first-half field goals. Even though they had moved the ball at will throughout the first two periods, the Cardinals entered the locker room clinging to a slim 16-14 lead.
"We were trying to attack," Brohm said. "Coach was talking all week about haymakers. If you don't make the first haymaker, don't worry about it. Just take another one. We're going to keep swinging."
They eventually delivered a knockout blow.
Instead of getting down on themselves, Louisville scored 28 second-half points. The Cardinals needed that kind of production to win a shootout in which the two teams combined for 1,008 yards of total offense.
"Everybody put it out on the field," Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said. "We had great effort. We had very good execution. Offensively we tried to be as aggressive as we've ever been because we knew how explosive they were."
The Cardinals had long since proved their mental toughness.
This season opened with all-time high expectations for this program because of the so-called Derby City Duo. A pair of Louisville residents – Brohm and tailback Michael Bush – gave the Cardinals arguably the nation's top offensive backfield.
Brohm and Bush were supposed to lead the Cardinals to glory on their way to the Heisman Trophy ceremony. But their respective Heisman candidacies were derailed before mid-September.
Bush broke his right leg in a season-opening victory over Kentucky and won't play again this year, if the NFL prospect ever suits up for Louisville again.
Two weeks later, Brohm tore a ligament in his right (throwing) thumb. The injury caused him to miss two games. That represented the latest setback for the star quarterback, who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee last November.
The injuries to Bush and Brohm gave the Cardinals two ready-made excuses if their season had fallen short of expectations. Instead, Louisville has adjusted and found new ways to win.
Kolby Smith and Anthony Allen have led the committee that has replaced Bush, who rushed for a school-record 23 touchdowns last year. They don't possess Bush's experience or explosiveness, but they've complemented one another well enough to help the Cardinals maintain a balanced offense.
Smith gained 73 yards on 13 carries Thursday, while Allen ran 12 times for 47 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Louisville ran well enough to keep West Virginia's defense honest, but the Cardinals wouldn't have kept their national championship hopes alive without a big performance from their hometown hero.
Brohm showed signs of rust in his first two games after returning from the thumb injury, but he apparently was just warming himself up for the game that mattered most.
"You could see Brian after the Syracuse game (two weeks ago), his preparation and motivation to play real well in this game," Petrino said. "Just the way he practiced, it was different than the previous two weeks."
He received plenty of help from talented wideouts Mario Urrutia and Harry Douglas, who got so open, so often that it seemed as though the West Virginia defensive backs were casually watching a game of catch. Urrutia and Douglas each caught six passes while combining for 229 receiving yards.
The Cardinals needed a brilliant performance from Brohm to withstand West Virginia's dynamic duo of Pat White and Slaton. White rushed for 125 yards and four touchdowns and also passed for 222 yards.
Slaton rushed for 156 yards, but the Cardinals also gained a measure of revenge on their chief tormentor from last year.
The sophomore tailback fumbled the ball away on each of West Virginia's first two series of the second half. Louisville linebacker Malik Jackson returned the second fumble 13 yards to extend the Cardinals' lead to 23-14 with 12:08 left in the third quarter.
Less than three minutes later, Trent Guy scored on a 40-yard punt return that gave Louisville a 16-point advantage.
And this time, instead of blowing a lead, the Cardinals ended the night by blowing off some steam in a wild midfield celebration. Brohm couldn't have imagined a more perfect scenario.
"It's been a dream of mine since I was a kid that Louisville would be on this type of stage," Brohm said. "It's just fun to be a part of."
Those dreams of the Heisman Trophy coming to Louisville may have ended, but the Cardinals now have their eyes on a much greater prize.
Louisville travels to Rutgers next Thursday in one more Big East battle of unbeaten teams. The Cardinals also have upcoming home dates with South Florida and Connecticut, plus a road trip to Pittsburgh.
But if the Cardinals can make it through their final four games unscathed, they probably will end the season playing for the national title.