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Alderman for mayor!

CRAWFORD | Turning on the lights: Freshman's late INT return sends Louisville past UCF 42-35

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Malik Cunningham

Malik Cunningham dives toward the goal line in Louisville's 42-35 win over UCD on Friday, Sept. 18.

LOUISVILLLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Well, that's more like it.

In the University of Louisville football team's third game in 12 days, it found the spark and enthusiasm that had been missing since its spirited win over Wake Forest to end the 2020 campaign.

A new cast of Louisville characters put on the kind of show on a Friday night ESPN stage that once made the program must-watch viewing, win or lose, and eventually led to a major conference opportunity.

The Cardinals played with energy. The fans, 39,022 in Cardinal Stadium, showed up with energy. In a game in which Louisville desperately needed to find some answers and deliver them on a public stage – the Cardinals did.

And though they didn't quite slam the door on a solid (and favored) Central Florida team when they had the opportunity and nearly gave the game away on a tipped-ball interception with 56 seconds left, another tipped ball interception by freshman reserve linebacker Jaylin Alderman, which he returned 66 yards for a touchdown, gave Louisville a 42-35 victory.

"Incredible college football game," Louisville coach Scott Satterfield said. "You don't like to play three games in 12 days, but ESPN, they live for games like that. I promise you that. We put on a show for everybody. And it's fun to be on this side of it. I just can't say enough about our guys, how they fought. They were just flying around in every phase. It wasn't perfect. Guys kept getting dinged and kept going back in the game."

Who turned on the lights?

Alderman is a true freshman who signed out of Valdosta, Ga., and only was in the game because of an injury to defensive standout Monty Montgomery. He came into the game third on the depth chart. He left it as a top highlight on ESPN's SportsCenter.

It was his only play of the game. As he sprinted down the sideline, Satterfield said this was his thought: "God is good."

"He gets in the game and gets a touchdown," Satterfield said. "He goes in with 18 seconds left and is supposed to go with the No. 2 vertical (receiver), but he sits out there in the flat. The ball gets tipped right to him, not even supposed to be there, and he catches it and goes in to score a touchdown. You can't write a script any better than that. . . . The reason he got in our game is he is as smart as any of our linebackers. He's a true freshman but he studies the game and knows what to do."

But Alderman wasn't the only one.

There was quarterback Malik Cunningham. He did a little of everything. He was confident and effective. He threw for 265 yards and a touchdown. He ran for 99 yards and 2 scores. More than that, he played with a smile on his face. His attitude was infectious. His running effort led to a 191-yard rushing performance against a team that came into the game No. 2 in the nation against the run.

"Malik was incredible," Satterfield said. "He got dinged, wouldn't come out of the game. That's why his teammates love him. That's why he's a captain. That's why he's our quarterback. That right there. People don't see how he handles himself on a day-in, day-out basis. He'll fight for everything. Sometimes it gets him in trouble. But that's why we love him, and that's a big reason we won the game."

There was the defense. At first glance, giving up 420 yards of offense might not seem impressive, but UCF was averaging better than 600 per game. The defense also held the Knights to 2-for-10 on third down. Montgomery had a team-high 9 tackles before leaving the game. And though he was hurt, he was sprinting down the sideline when Alderman scored, even drew a flag for celebrating.

And there was the coaching staff, which has come in for some criticism over the past several weeks. Satterfield opened up the passing game, and threw in a few wrinkles. The biggest was a double-pass, a lateral to wideout Braden Smith, who hit running back Trevion Cooley wide open for a 45-yard touchdown that put Louisville up 35-28 with 9:15 left in the game.

But more than that, Satterfield managed the week well. He and his staff helped his players ignore the noise, and managed the team so that it wouldn't be physically drained by its congested early schedule.

"We had a great game plan," Satterfield said. "We had a short week. It's been hard on our guys physically and mentally. The thing we wanted to do as coaches was to keep them fresh. So we didn't put pads on the whole week. We went two walk-throughs this week. We had a run-through this week with just helmets. We really just wanted energy. We talked about it. Hydrate. Eat. Get your sleep. I must have said that a hundred million times this past two weeks. But it pays off when you're able to unleash. And then we fed off the crowd. This was a great crowd, it was loud, on their third downs they couldn't hear anything. That's what a home-field advantage is all about. I hate for anybody who didn't come out tonight because they missed an unbelievable game."

Give a credit to the crowd, which wasn't one of the largest, but did come ready to contribute.

They were rewarded with an entertaining college football show. And more than that, they were able to leave the stadium with some hope.

Given what most expected before the game, that's no small thing.

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