October 9, 2020 Atlanta - Louisville's quarterback Malik Cunningham (3) runs for a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Friday, October 9, 2020. Georgia Tech's won 46-27 over the Louisville. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – It’s a hard proposition covering University of Louisville football this season. Which way do you go? Do you criticize them for not taking advantage of opportunities when they have them? Or do you praise them for creating opportunities with so many key players missing?

This game went from "Louisville has a decent shot" to "Louisville is up against it" before the ball was even kicked off. Seven U of L players were listed as unavailable, including its top receiver (TuTu Atwell), its top two running backs (Javian Hawkins and Hassan Hall), plus defensive linemen YaYa Diaby, Derek Dorsey and Tabarius Peterson and cornerback Chandler Jones.

All but Hawkins are more COVID-19 casualties, or contact tracing, one week after the Cardinals had to cancel a game at Virginia because of a breakout on the team.

So, yeah. You knew it was going to be difficult. Then the clock hits 0:00, Virginia has won 31-17 after Louisville has given up 14 points off turnovers, and you feel like it was a game that should have been won, or at least a whole lot closer.

You know Louisville is going to try. And the Cards got off to perhaps their best start of the Atlantic Coast Conference season, stopping Virginia on a three-and-out and driving deep into Cavaliers’ territory. Then Malik Cunningham threw an interception returned 84 yards for a score, Virginia went up 7-0, and it was uphill the rest of the game.

"I’m proud of our guys and their effort," Louisville coach Scott Satterfield said. "Our guys are trying hard, man. Our coaching staff is trying hard with the game plans. They’re putting together good game plans. But then you get some adversity and you have to shuffle guys around and it’s tough. It’s very frustrating. We’ve just got to continue to work. When you face adversity, you’ve just got to keep trying. That’s the only choice – or quit. And we’re certainly not going to quit. So we’re going to keep fighting. We’re in all these games. It’s amazing the fine line in college football. A couple plays, a couple plays we’ve got to make, got to make, got to make. And if you make those, then you win. Last year, if you look back, we made those plays and we won 8 games. But we’re right there in these games, we’re just not making the plays when we need them to put us over the top. . . . And it's turnovers. We're not a good enough team to turn it over like this and win. We have to play just spot on, all the time, and that takes extreme focus from our players and our staff, throughout the week and on game day." 

Depleted as Louisville was, it had its chances. No, wait. That’s wrong. Louisville actually outplayed Virginia for long stretches. It came back to take a 10-7 lead. It moved the ball at will, especially on the ground. And it hung tough when it did shoot itself in the foot.

But "hanging tough" isn’t particularly good copy.

This team is not as good as it should have been this season, despite everything, and I can sum it up in one word: Turnovers.

Or, if this works better, I can sum it up with one play. Down 24-17 midway through the fourth quarter, Louisville was driving driving for a score that could have tied the game. Cunningham scrambled into the open field and took off, sprinting 27 yards into Virginia territory. But as he was hit, he kept running, spun around, and stayed upright just long enough for Nick Grant to strip him and recover the football at the Louisville 38.

That turned a close game into a yawner. And it turned another chance for a turnaround into another fumbled opportunity.

Virginia scored a TD to go up 31-17. Several plays later, Dez Fitzpatrick fumbled after a reception, and that was it.

Virginia came into the game ranked last in the ACC in pass defense but added back a couple of key pieces in the secondary. The Cavaliers' pressure up front — from the leading sack defense in the ACC — kept Cunningham from being able to deliver on the kind of deep threat that he’s been for much of his career.

He delivered in other ways. With Hawkins out, Cunningham ran for 197 yards and both of Louisville’s touchdowns. How do you criticize a kid who does that — and throws for 161 yards?

Louisville outgained Virginia 478 yards to 368. It averaged 8 yards per play and 8.1 yards per rush. But it lost 3 turnovers. It gave up a short field when Scott Satterfield decided to go for it on fourth and 2 near midfield on the first drive of the second half, and UVA got the stop and went in for a score.

I don’t blame Louisville fans if they’re disappointed, at 2-6 with just one win in ACC play. This was never going to be a championship team, but it should have more wins than it has right now. The Cardinals are playing hard. They are putting in all the effort you could ask for.

But right now, they are giving far too much of it back.

"I told the guys, we’re scarring down right now," Satterfield said. "This adversity is scarring us down, and it’s going to make us a better program and a better team as we move forward, and we’ll reap the benefits of it. We’ve just got to continue working hard. If we stop turning the ball over, we’ll have a great chance to win. We’re going to continue to work on it."

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