LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – The sad fact of Louisville's 30-3 win over Eastern Kentucky on Saturday is that all anyone is going to remember is true freshman receiver Ahmari Huggins-Bruce dropping what would have been a 95-yard touchdown pass one yard from the goal line – and out of the end zone for a touchback.
Louisville won the game. It lost the optics on what would have been the longest touchdown pass in school history, and a freshman mistake at the end. (It also failed to cover, making that unforced drop one of the worst beats in Louisville history, for those who wagered on the outcome.)
Those things aren't supposed to matter. But it is useful for this observation: This is not yet a team I'd bet on.
The play was a bolt of lightning in an otherwise plodding performance by the Cardinals. And it may, in fact, overshadow a few red flags that waved for most of the game, the most prominent being that Louisville couldn't establish dominance at the line of scrimmage, averaging just three yards per carry in the first half (11 carries for 34 yards in the first quarter) before wearing down their FCS opponents for 5.5 yards per carry in the second.
It also took Louisville a while to take the game in hand, with its first two touchdowns coming on a short field and its second on a punt return TD. Five minutes into the second quarter the lead was just 13-0. Louisville was in control at 20-3 at halftime, thanks to a 49-yard punt return score by Braden Smith, but to score only 10 points in the second half against EKU is a concern.
Also a concern: Louisville went just 4-of-14 on third down, tough it did convert a pair of fourth-down chances.
"I thought we came out and played hard tonight," Louisville coach Scott Satterfield said. "I thought defensively we played well. Offensively, we did some things that worked tonight, but also some things that were just average. Won the turnover margin, which was nice. But I think overall I'm just proud of guys bouncing back for a win. We've got to do it again with another short week this week."
The defense looked more the part of an FBS unit on Saturday, particularly cornerback Kei-Trel Clark, who grabbed two interceptions.
"I thought he played awesome out there on the edge," Satterfield said. "He had some deflections, some interceptions and some great tackles coming up on those little bubble spot screens they were trying to run. Overall I thought our defense played well today."
But for Louisville, 441 yards of total offense against EKU isn't a good sign of things to come against better defenses – even against an ACC that is struggling mightily (with 94 of those yards coming on the fumbled touchdown).
Cunningham said he was just glad the play didn't happen in a game where it would affect winning or losing.
"He's a young guy," quarterback Malik Cunningham said. "He has a lot of potential, a lot of talent. It's just a good thing it happened against EKU and not next week (against Central Florida). Just have to stay on those guys to stay disciplined."
The Cardinals look better when they go to quick, short throws, with an attack that is fast-paced and fast-developing. The problem is that they run the risk of being one-dimensional if they rely too much on that. Still, for a second straight game, they looked better in a second half when they opened up a bit and got some receivers into space.
They also got more in the big-play department, in addition to the 94-yard would-be touchdown pass, Malik Cunningham had completions of 30 and 40 yards. They also got runs of 24 and 17 yards by Jalen Mitchell.
Cunningham went 16 of 24 for 277 yards and a touchdown. But he also missed some open receivers while he was on the run.
"It was a good win," Cunningham said. "But we're not proud of that win. . . . We've got to keep working and improving."
Louisville opened its scoring on a 3-play, 25-yard drive after Marvin Dallas recovered a muffed punt. But four of Louisville's first five drives ended with punts, before Smith's punt return TD gave the Cards a cushion.
The offense's first sustained scoring drive of the game came late in the half, an 11-play, 72-yard drive that ended with a 3-yard touchdown.
The running game struggled sometimes, but we did get some good runs in there," Satterfield said. ". . . And Amari, it was unfortunate. He did the hard part, out-running the whole defense. The easy part, anybody in this room could just carry it across the line. It was unfortunate for him. But he still had a great night. He's a very good playmaker with the ball in his hands. He's got exceptional speed and quickness. It's just a shame we didn't get a touchdown on that particular play. But overall, we know we want to get better offensively, and we'll continue to work at it."
The Cards will have to work quickly. They play host to Central Florida on Friday night in Cardinal Stadium.
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