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Cards Carve Up Bulldogs to Cap Titanic Turnaround

By Matt Smith
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Scott Satterfield enters Year Two at Louisville having won over the entire fanbase after taking over a downtrodden 2-10 program and guiding it to eight wins.

No, they’re not about to start competing with Clemson.

With that caveat, it might be time to take a hard look at Louisville as the program that can take over the nomadic No. 2 position in the ACC behind the defending national champions.

The Cardinals (8-5, 5-3 ACC) capped one of the biggest turnarounds in the nation this season with a 38-28 rout of Mississippi State (6-7, 3-5 SEC) on Monday afternoon in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. With the win, Louisville quadrupled its 2018 win total, surging from 2-10 to 8-5 in the first season under head coach Scott Satterfield.

Early on, Mississippi State capitalized on a noticeable size advantage, marching 99 yards for the game’s first touchdown after recovering a Louisville fumble deep in its own territory. The Bulldogs continued to pound the ball on the ground on their first drive of the second quarter, grinding out a 10-play, 80-yard drive to take a 14-0 lead. The drive was aided by a personal foul penalty on Louisville linebacker Dorian Etheridge, for which he was ejected.

Even with the Cardinals down their starting middle linebacker, the two early touchdown drives were the extent of the contribution from Mississippi State’s offense until the outcome was decided.

Louisville successfully deployed its army of speedy skill position players all afternoon, and after its first three drives ended scoreless, the Cardinals took six straight drives into Mississippi State territory, four of which resulted in points. A 31-0 run that put the game out of reach early in the fourth quarter was led by quarterback Micale Cunningham and wide receiver Tutu Atwell, aided by a defensive touchdown on a fumble return touchdown by senior safety Khane Pass.

The Cardinals’ first score came on a double pass from Cunningham to Atwell and then to H-back Marshon Ford. Satterfield said the play had been left untapped on the call sheet for the last five games, and he wanted to use it in the season’s final game. Atwell then took over with his receiving talents, amassing nine receptions for 147 yards and the touchdown pass to Ford.

Atwell was brilliant, but Cunningham was named the game’s MVP. The sophomore quarterback finished with 360 yards of total offense and a pair of passing touchdowns – a go-ahead 24-yard strike to Devante Peete in the third quarter and a backbreaking score to Ford early in the fourth quarter to extend the lead to three scores.

Mississippi State was able to answer quickly to keep some drama going with a touchdown to make it a 31-21 game, but Bulldogs quarterback Tommy Stevens never looked comfortable, particularly during a five-possession stretch in the middle portion of the game in which Mississippi State managed just one first down while its defense was getting torched. Stevens finished 17-of-26 for 221 yards with a passing touchdown and rushing touchdown, but also the key fumble that Pass returned for a touchdown.

Louisville closed its scoring with a 52-yard touchdown drive after a fourth-down stop, capped by a five-yard run by shifty freshman tailback Javian Hawkins. A final garbage time touchdown toss from Stevens to Osirus Mitchell in the final seconds made the margin a deceptive 10 points, as the Cardinals held a total yards of advantage of around 200 yards for most of the second half.

Joe Moorhead and Mississippi State now head into a critical third season of his tenure in 2020. Both of his first two seasons failed to meet expectations, but with Moorhead inheriting a stable program as opposed to one in need of a rebuild, he’ll need to show progress next season to keep his job after going 14-12 in 2018 and 2019
The Bulldogs have a manageable schedule by SEC West standards, as they’ll face three conference teams with new head coaches and have a winnable non-conference game with N.C. State that could determine the fate of both Moorhead and embattled Wolfpack head coach Dave Doeren.

Monday’s game was about Louisville, however, and the promise of the program heading into a new decade. Satterfield enters Year 2 at Louisville having won over the entire fanbase after taking over a downtrodden 2-10 program and guiding it to eight wins.

The Cardinals have a challenging road schedule in 2020 with trips to Clemson, Notre Dame and Virginia, but Louisville should compete for an Orange Bowl berth, assuming Clemson is back in the College Football Playoff for a sixth straight season. Cunningham and Atwell will both return, and Satterfield now has a group of players who know how to win, unlike the team he inherited that lost nine straight games, most in blowout fashion, to end the Bobby Petrino regime

The gap between Clemson and everyone else in the ACC is still massive, but if we’re looking for a program to emerge from the clouded group of mediocrity behind the Tigers, Louisville looks like the best bet. The infrastructure is there. The coaching is there. The results are now there too.

Another Lamar Jackson might not be passing through the Derby City anytime soon, but the spotlight and success of the Jackson era might be about to reappear.

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.