DALLAS - It's safe to say that the Louisville football program isn't heading into the offseason with much momentum
Roughly a month after getting embarrassed by in-state rival Kentucky on their home turf to end the regular season, the Cardinals followed that up with an uninspiring performance in the First Responder Bowl, falling 31-28 to Air Force Tuesday at Gerald J. Ford Stadium.
Louisville finishes the 2021 season with a record of 6-7, their first time posting back-to-back losing seasons since the final two years of the Steve Kragthorpe era in 2008/09. It also marks the first bowl loss for Scott Satterfield as a head coach (4-1).
It was a matchup in which Louisville was extremely shorthanded. Two of their top four wide receivers in Jordan Watkins and Justin Marshall, as well as cornerback Greedy Vance all entered the portal since the Cardinals' regular season finale. Louisville had also been missing starters inside linebacker Monty Montgomery, wide receiver Braden Smith, cornerback Kei'Trel Clark and safety Kenderick Duncan due to various injuries.
Air Force came into the matchup having ran the ball on 91 consecutive offensive plays, but decided to pick on Louisville's depleted secondary. Averaging just 84.7 passing yards per game during the regular season, Falcons quarterback Haaziq Daniels threw for 252 yards and two touchdowns on 9-of-10 passing, while also adding a pair of short yardage rushing scores.
Conversely, mainly due to the lack of available weapons for quarterback Malik Cunningham, it was Louisville who struggled in the passing game. He finished with 207 yards and touchdown on 13-of-21 passing, including just 61 yards in the first half. He also had 61 rushing yards and a score on the ground to put him at an even 20 rushing touchdowns on the season.
Trevion Cooley - who got the start at running back after it was announced Jalen Mitchell would miss the game due to illness - finished with 92 yards on the day. Syracuse transfer Jawhar Jordan also chipped in with 37 yards.
Air Force fullback Brad Roberts, who amassed 1,275 rushing yards in the regular season, led the Falcons ballcarriers with 77 yards. The Falcons finished with 170 rushing yards to the Cardinals' 195, but had 20 more yards of total offense.
Louisville had a chance to crack the scoreboard first, but James Turner's 44-yard first quarter field goal attempt sailed wide to the left. Instead it was Air Force who got the scoring going, with Daniels punching it in from five yards out on their ensuing drive.
After a 40-yard gain through the air set up that score, Air Force really opened up their passing attack in the second quarter. Falcons wide receiver Brandon Lewis caught the Louisville secondary off guard, tallying not one, but two touchdown receptions of 60+ yards during this quarter.
Fortunately, Louisville did have answers after each of those long Air Force scores. Cooley found the endzone on a one-yard run for his first career rushing touchdown, then Jawhar Jordan took a kickoff 100 yards to the house for his first touchdown as a Cardinal.
However, the Falcons had more than enough time to drive down the field before half. They put together an 11-play, 75-yard drive - which included converting a midfield fourth down - culminating in Daniels' second goal-line rushing score of the game with under a minute left in the half.
The Louisville defense forced a pair of Air Force punts in the third quarter, allowing the offense an opportunity to chip into the lead and get back in the game. Their first drive of the half was stuffed at the goal line, but their second one ended in a 34-yard strike to Tyler Harrell, pulling the Cardinals within a score heading into the fourth quarter.
But when the Louisville defense needed a stop the most, they couldn't get it. Air Force responded by eating up 9:36 of clock on a 17-play drive, kicking a 26-yard field goal with just 5:28 left in the game to go up 10.
Cunningham was able to lead Louisville on a quick drive that ended in him finding the end zone on a 22-yard run, but special teams and defense couldn't uphold their end of a comeback special. The Cardinals attempted and failed an onside kick, with Air Force running out the clock to claim the victory.
(Photo of Brandon Lewis, C.J. Avery: Jerome Miron - USA TODAY Sports)
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