LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Through the early goings of the 2021 season for Louisville, some major concerns started to emerge the offensive side of the ball.
Against both Ole Miss and Eastern Kentucky, the Cardinals got off to extremely slow starts. The highly touted offensive line was struggling to generate the push that was expected, the running game suffered due to predictable play calling, and the young and largely inexperienced receiver corps had trouble getting on the same page as quarterback Malik Cunningham.
When Louisville took the field of Cardinal Stadium on Friday night for a matchup against UCF, everything started to come together. It wasn't perfect, but the Cardinals were able to go toe-to-toe with the Knights' own high flying offense, and outlast their visitors with a 42-35 victory.
"What a show we put on for everybody and it's great to be a part of it and to be on this side of it. I just can't say enough about our guys and how they fought," head coach Scott Satterfield said.
Entering the matchup, Louisville was averaging 398 total yards of offense per game, and facing a UCF defense that was allowing just 283. By the time the clock hit zero, the Cardinals had 501 - their first 500+ yard game since Halloween last year against Virginia Tech.
364 of those yards came from Cunningham. The Montgomery, Ala. native was 23-of-38 passing for 265 yards and a touchdown, accompanied by 99 yards rushing and a pair of scores on 13 attempts. Even with Cunningham visibly hobbled during the fourth quarter, he still remained in the game.
"I thought Malik played outstanding," Satterfield said. "He played gutsy. He just fought all night long. He gave us a great chance offensively, made plays with his legs and his arm. He's a leader and our kids love him. That's why he's out there."
The passing game as a whole looked the best it had been all season. 10 different players caught a pass - the first time since Oct. 5, 2018 vs. Georgia Tech.
Tight end Marshon Ford had a career day with eight receptions for 100 yards and a touchdown, and even wide receiver Braden Smith got in on the quarterbacking action, throwing a 45-yard touchdown pass to Trevion Cooley on a third quarter trick play.
"We just felt going in, that (UCF) plays a lot of man, and we felt like our guys could get open in that man coverage." Satterfield said. "We'd be able throw some footballs, and that's why we hit some of those early in the game."
But the running game is what impressed the most. Heading into the matchup, UCF had the No. 1 rushing defense in the nation, allowing just 20 rushing yards per game. Louisville had nearly ten times that amount in the win, finishing with 191.
Running back Jalen Mitchell put on display his ability to make cuts and embrace hits, rushing for 74 yards and a touchdown on 16 attempts, while Cunningham looked electric with the ball in his hands on his designed runs and scrambles.
"We felt we needed to get Cunningham involved in the running game and we did early, he had some big runs, and then hitting some of those inside runs with our running backs," Satterfield said. "Mitchell ran hard tonight, really hard. We played four backs tonight, they were running hard, they were blocking, it takes everybody."
Even the coaching staff deserves credit. The predictable and vanilla play calling, which has been a point of criticism since the start of the 2020 season, was largely absent. The passing game was incorporated as much as the run was, even in short downs, and the rushing game itself was not held to just outside zone runs and QB draws.
"What it proves tonight is that if you do believe, and if you do put a great game plan together - our coaches did a phenomenal job with the game planning this week, by the way," Satterfield said. "Our coaches did a fabulous job this week of putting together a game plan, and our kids knew it, and they executed it."
Louisville will be back action next weekend for their ACC opener against Florida State at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, Fla.. Kickoff against the Seminoles is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 25 at 3:30 p.m. EST on ESPN2.
(Photo of Malik Cunningham: Jamie Rhodes - USA TODAY Sports)
You can follow Louisville Report for future coverage by liking us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram:
You can also follow Deputy Editor Matthew McGavic at @GeneralWasp on Twitter