LOUISVILLE, Ky. - After a pair of lackluster performances to open up the 2021 season, Louisville came through in a massive way on Friday night at Cardinal Stadium.
Hosting UCF, in a game which many viewed as potentially the most important game of the Scott Satterfield era, the Cardinals (2-1, 0-0 ACC) emerged on the right side of a 42-35 barnburner, handing the Knights (2-1, 0-0 American) their first loss of the year.
Louisville quarterback Malik Cunningham's pass with 25 seconds left - and the score tied at 35 - was intercepted after being batting down at the line of scrimmage. On the very next play, UCF quarterback Dillon Gabriel's pass, intended for Amari Johnson, bounced through his hands, and into the arms of true freshman linebacker Jaylen Alderman for a 66-yard game-winning pick six.
Cunningham finished the game with 364 total yards of offense and three scores, while Gabriel had 226 yards but five total touchdowns. Louisville running back Jalen Mitchell had 99 yards and two touchdowns on the ground, tight end Marshon Ford had eight catches for 100 yards and a touchdown, and the Cardinals out-gained the Knights 501-420.
Early on, it looked like another slow start was in store for the Cardinals. They failed to convert a fourth down around midfield on their first drive, then two plays later, allowed Gabriel to deliver a 41-yard strike to Ryan O'Keefe for a touchdown to open up the scoring.
But instead of things slowly slipping away after that, Louisville went out and played their best half of football all season.
Facing a defense that was allowing just 22 rushing yards per game, Cunningham and Mitchell spearheaded a rushing attack that put up 126 in the first half. They each had goal-to-go scores on the ground, and tight end Marshon Ford hauled in a 1-yard score through the air in the closing minute of the half to give the Cardinals a 21-14 lead at halftime.
Outside of the opening score, and an incredible one-handed grab from wide receiver Jaylon Robinson for a 15-yard touchdown, the Louisville defense held the Knights held largely in check to start the game. UCF posted just 165 first half yards, and were just 1-5 on third down during that span.
The Knights wasted little time out of the half, utilizing a trick play on their first drive to catch the Louisville defense off guard, with Gabriel himself hauling in a 20-yard touchdown pass. Later in the quarter, the Cardinals responded with Cunningham's second goal-to-go rushing score of the game to re-take the lead, set up by an impressive haul from Ford.
In the fourth quarter, Louisville had a trick up their sleeves as well. Cunningham dished it to Smith, who then launched a 45-yard pass to a wide open Trevion Cooley for the touchdown. UCF also had a pair of fourth quarter scores from Gabriel, one through the air and one on the ground to tie the game, prior to the game-winning pick six.
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 Marshon Ford, Malik Cunningham, Big Kat Bryant: Jamie Rhodes - USA TODAY Sports)
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